Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happy Birthday James!

It's The Hat's half-century! My heartfelt congratulations on making it this far still with inimitable good humour intact.

As my little contribution to the celebrations, I thought I'd go on a trip down memory lane.

I first met Mr Alexander Sinclair under a rainy bandstand at the Chelsea Flower Show back in 2006, when he was a mere spring chicken of 46, I believe.

It was my first time reporting from Chelsea so I was a bit starry-eyed, but James charmingly pretended not to notice and spared me far more of his valuable time than he probably should have done to talk to me on my rather earnest topic, which was Designers Versus Gardeners (yes, that old chestnut).

Sadly, the original recording on my trusty little Olympus is lost to posterity, but I did keep a transcription hidden in the dusty vaults of my computer's hard drive. So from a happy half-hour of very quotable quotes, here are a few of James's pithier observations.

"I'm never going to be a very good member of a boy band, and I'm never going to be a Spice Girl - so I decided at an early age not to be a Spice Girl and be a garden designer."

"The purpose of clothes is twofold: it's partly to stop you being naked, which is sometimes embarrassing, but also to show yourself off to your best ability."

"I know everyone thinks designers are a load of silk-shirted woofters who just ponce about and say, oh yes, plant that there, and never get their hands dirty. I have very clean hands."

"What percentage of the general public buy their underwear in Marks and Spencers compared to the general public who buy their underwear at Agent Provocateur? Yet everyone talks about the frilly knickers."

Only one of these actually made it into the article along with the sensible bits. As proof that nothing on the internet ever dies, three years later you can still read the version with the serious bits left in here.

Have a wonderful day, James, and may all your knickers be from Agent Provocateur.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Running to seed

Though I say it myself, I've been doing rather well with saving seed this year.

I've had a go with peas and beans before - they're the beginners' babysteps of seed as they just obligingly stay in the pods and dry themselves.

But this year I've got all ambitious. Here are my leeks from last year, which got left over in a container on my patio (I was having an experiment with growing veg in pots last year - it doesn't work well for leeks, at least not in my garden where they've stayed spring-onion slender).

First of all, they've been the most beautiful allium blooms in the garden for the last month. They opened after the main allium display was over and have been flowering their socks off very charmingly ever since. It's given me all sorts of interesting ideas for the main flower borders.

But more to the point, there are seeds in them thar flowerheads and I intend to let them dry and then collect them by muffling them in paper bags, turning them upside down and shaking vigorously. Then I'll see what I end up with next year - they won't come true, but then these were a fairly bog-standard leek variety so that shouldn't be a problem.

Now these have been delighting me since early spring - this is the dried version, but in full flower it was a glorious brassy yellow umbel borne fully 6 feet above ground.

For those who haven't already guessed: it's a parsnip. And a truly lovely one at that. The only slight setback is that it's covered in blackfly - can't think what they're finding to eat in those papery stems. It's keeping the ladybirds happy, but I don't know if it's going to affect how good the seed is.

And this has been a real surprise: I munched my way through the kale last winter (it's "Dwarf Green Curled", or rather, was) but sort of forgot to take the plants out in the spring rush, and they've flowered.

Brassica flowers all look much the same - nice enough, but yellow flowers which are a bit too straggly to be called beautiful. The seedheads are something else though: architectural and full of texture (and, of course, seeds). Again, they're very tall - not quite at parsnip height but still a good five foot.

They're now very dry and brittle and due to snap open at any moment - I really must capture a branch or two and upend them into a bag before they explode all over the place and the seeds are lost to the four winds.

Here's a glimpse of what's inside: they break open just like peas in a pod to reveal those very typical brassica seeds, each with its own little dent in the soft white down that coats the inside of each pod.

It's all a rather wonderful experiment, and I'm finding it a bit of a revelation that not only has it given me free seed for next year - it's also made me look at my veg through new eyes. They may be confined to the allotment this year, but next year I think they'll be making a bid for the borders...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Our Big Lunch

We've been having lunch with Tim Smit today.

The Big Lunch is an idea of his which I first heard about this spring, and mentioned to a few friends as it was an obvious one for us. The idea is that everyone in the country gets together with their neighbours and has a street party - for no other reason than that it's nice to do things like that.

We've got a big green outside the front of our houses which is ideal for parties, and we hadn't had one since the Queen's Jubilee (and that was a party people still talk about). Trouble is nobody wanted to organise it - so we didn't. I have a sneaky feeling we were supposed to start a Grand Campaign way back and grow lots of our own food in time for the Big Day, put up posters, get street musicians, make bunting and other such energetic frippery. But basically, nobody could be bothered.

So we just put a hastily-cobbled-together flyer through people's doors and turned up with a tent (it looked like rain) and a barbecue. I did make a cheesecake with some home-grown blackcurrants but that's about as much gardening as was involved, I'm afraid.

The funny thing is, I don't think we needed to do much more. People just joined in: brought their own barbecues, a few picnics, a lot of beer and a gazebo or two. Someone brought a volleyball net, and we were set for an afternoon doing just the thing which Tim Smit had in mind all along - which is getting together with our friends and neighbours and having a stonking good time. I met a lot of people who apparently have been my neighbours for some time yet who I've never actually spoken to, and also spent some proper time having fun with neighbours who are already friends (as opposed to a hasty "hi!" as we pass on the way to work/school/the shops).

What's more it's become a fixture - everyone enjoyed it so much we're doing it next year too. We've even set a date. I don't know how many other people out there have been doing this today - the Big Lunch website says 2 million but heaven knows whether that's number of events or number of people taking part - but in a way, being part of a national 'day' didn't make a difference: this is about the local, not the national, and you don't have a special day to do it. It's just perhaps a bit of a shame that it's taken Tim Smit to persuade us to get on with it. But I'm glad he did.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Return of the Rumble Memorial Pot

You know, I'm supposed to have a pretty container frothing with flowers just outside my front door to welcome visitors. The idea was that I filled it with colourful bedding, petunias or some such, in summer and replanted with a cheery mix of winter pansies and maybe some spring bulbs in about November.

Well: this is it.

Yes, those are - or rather, were - the bedding plants under the cat. The trouble is that the very thing that makes this a good spot for bedding - sunny, bright spot and all that - also makes it very covetable to pussycats.

My late and much-lamented black-and-white cat Rumble used to do exactly the same: in fact, I had christened this very container the Rumble Memorial Pot after he died, and it always made me a little sad to see bedding actually thriving in it instead of being squashed. So since Rumble's junior partner in crime Pippa has taken to doing the same thing I'm rather perversely cheerful now that I'm having to look at a pot of dead foliage all summer once more.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July flowers

Now this is so easy. All Garden Bloggers Bloom Days should be in July.

Hope you enjoy it! And thanks as always to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting this lovely exercise in appreciating our gardens.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A tale of two designers

Sadly, my college course has now finished - I shall miss it, not just for the chance to jaw about plants for a whole day each week but also because I actually learnt a lot that may be of some use to me if anyone is ever foolish enough to let me loose on their garden.

As a finale, we spent the last day of the course visiting Bury Court, a fine garden not far from here, just over the border between Surrey and Hampshire. The interesting thing about it is that it was designed by two of the leading designers of our time: Christopher Bradley-Hole and Piet Oudolf. The result is a garden of two halves: the "front", an ultra-modern grid around a rather funky wooden building with holes in the sides (a sort of cross between a summerhouse and a pergola), and the "back" a sweeping curve of herbaceous border and sumptuous planting. You can probably guess already who designed which bit.

Here's the front garden: the grid system leads you around the garden and since all the plants are around head-height it invites you to wander into one of the paths off the main drag and get very pleasantly sidetracked.

Grasses predominate, but big hefty ones -there were loads of Miscanthus. All the plants, too, were the kinds that grow really, really tall: the plume poppies (Macleaya cordata) were looking particularly fine.

Though this bit of the garden mainly relied on foliage contrasts for effect, there were splashes of colour: daisies, kniphofia, and here from a little yellow eremurus (they were all over the place in this garden, as it's very dry, and they looked absolutely gorgeous: note to self - acquire as many foxtail lilies as possible next year). But on the whole, restrained and elegant rather then exuberant.

This was more typical, and very effective against that weathered old barn behind. In full flower, these are I believe Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', and though I'm not usually keen on monocultural planting this was stunning.

Ooh... more eremurus... luvverly...

Now, this is the back garden. Guess who had a hand in this planting.

In classic Piet Oudolf style there's some bold structural backdrop to it all: these yew hedges curved sinuously among the planting, crooking themselves around the flowers in a protective embrace and, of course, giving them something to show off against.

As always with this consummate plantsman you find lots of plants you'd never come across before but which shoot right to the top of your gotta-have-it-gotta-have-it list. Here a wonderful eryngium of softest pewter blue, the younger flowers still freshly green: it also had the softest texture despite the prickly appearance. I have no idea what kind it is: this is not a garden that has plant labels, so I shall just have to go on one of those quests that lasts most of a lifetime and has you going into nurseries saying, "I'm looking for this sea holly I once saw...."
And here's another one: this fabulous thistle-like plant was at head height yet those flowers were covered in the most curious scales: here's a closeup:

Kind of papery, like a wasp's nest. It just made you want to touch it.

I could go on for hours with pictures of individual plants as there were just so many. Here's another mouthwateringly-lovely scabious: don't tell anyone but a few of the seeds happened to fall into my purse (from a very non-perfect seed head, I hasten to assure you) so you never know, I might be able to persuade it to like my little patch at home.

It's blindingly obvious by now, no doubt, which half I responded to most enthusiastically: but as an exercise in compare-and-contrast it was a real education. Bury Court is a wedding venue (wish I'd known about it when I was getting hitched) though I think you can arrange to see the gardens by appointment. There are a few more photos on the website: but if you can possibly wangle a visit, do go and see it for yourself.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Growing against the odds

While I was at Hampton Court I met a very nice man called Mark Diacono, who was telling me all about his olive crop.

He doesn't live in Italy, or in France, or anywhere warmer than rainy old Devon, where he has a 17-acre farm where for the last three years he's been experimenting with what you can do in a world where the climate is changing. These days, life in Devon is a good few degrees warmer overall than it used to be, allowing Mark to really push the boundaries and grow all sorts of borderline fruit which most of us wouldn't dare to try outside the greenhouse. As well as his olives, he grows apricots, peaches and pecans, all stuff we're used to thinking of as exotics here in the UK.

It's a real vision of the future. If what the government and the Met Office are predicting about the climate comes to pass, apricots and olives will become normal British fare. Mind you, like most trailblazers, Mark isn't having a straightforward time of it: the last two wet and gloomy summers did their best to bludgeon his olives into submission, and then we had last winter. It turns out, luckily for Mark, that olives are incredibly tough trees and despite losing pretty nearly all their leaves they came back again and have been flourishing in this year's heatwave. Now, if you didn't have people like Mark doing what he's doing you wouldn't believe olives could survive last winter outside in this country, would you? It makes me think I might try planting mine outside in the garden instead of making it languish in a pot all year round.

The other wonderful thing he's doing is reviving old near-forgotten English fruits such as medlars, quince and mulberries. If you want to read more about his extraordinary project, visit the Otter Farm website here, and Mark's blog which is here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A hole in the ground

Here's what stole the show at Hampton Court for me this week:

Much to my surprise, as I'm aware I'm usually a bit more conventional - even, dare I say it, square - about these things, it was this tiny experimental garden from Rebecca Butterworth, Victoria Pustygina and Ludovica Ginanneschi which for me beat into a cocked hat all the bells-and-whistles big show gardens and even the quirky Henry VIII's Wives gardens (not sure jawbones will catch on as garden ornaments but you never know).

The thing I liked most about it was that as you approach, the mirrors create the illusion that the planting is stretching away underneath the ground like some subterranean cavern. It's a truly lovely effect.

The planting was fabulous too - all big gorgeous colocasias (alocasias? never could tell the difference) and the slender elegance of Cyperus alternifolius: there were some very understated hemerocallis in there too in just the right shade of dusky pink and butterscotch. It was all beautifully well-judged and deservedly won not only a gold medal but also Best Conceptual Garden.

The garden has a painfully pretentious official write-up - presumably originating from the designers themselves which is mildly worrying - but I got around that by not trying to 'understand' it too much. For me it worked simply as a small but exquisite little piece of planting heaven.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A la recherche du temps perdu

Have camera cable, will blog.

Sorry for the prolonged absence: actually I'll admit it wasn't just the camera cable. I've only just been able to draw breath again after a ridiculously manic spell of overwork. Thank goodness that's over. My hallway disappeared entirely under the combined weight of school backpacks, discarded shoes and socks and dustballs, and my office looks like an explosion in a paper factory.

But I digress. Here's the last post I was going to make from the Chelsea Flower Show - remember that? It's only a month late.... but I thought since I still have the pictures on my camera (and can now get them off it again) I may as well share. So here's my pick of the best of the flowers from the glorious Great Pavilion - even more glorious this year and a plantaholic's feast. Enjoy.

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