Sunday, August 30, 2009

A writerly word, if I may

Well, fancy that. I am a little bemused but flattered to say I've been tagged by VP over in Chippenham, with a meme for garden writers.

Well, having spent most of the weekend trying frantically to catch up on at least one or two of the 101 articles I've been asked to squeeze in between trips to Thorpe Park and other such ungardenly things during the kids' summer holidays, I guess that pretty accurately describes me. So - here goes:

Which words do you use too much in your writing?
Oh dear - every word that was roundly Colborned last month. Stunning and lovely being the worst offenders. I have since his post however tried my best to censor such inanities and instead work in an "orgasmic" or two somewhere. Haven't managed it yet, but give me time.

Which words do you consider overused in stuff you read?
I refer the honourable member to my previous answer.

What’s your favourite piece of writing by you?
Oh my word, what a question. I can list several features I've enjoyed writing - the one on cutting gardens for Period Ideas, for instance, or several very nice interviews I've been sent on by the Richmond Magazine. Or nearly all my posts on this blog, which are really a dreadful indulgence which no real writer should be allowing themselves. But since I almost always agonise over every bit of writing I ever do, I don't think I can pick one out that I could call an actual favourite. Sorry.

What blog post do you wish you’d written?
Nearly every single one by James The Hat. I am insanely jealous.

Regrets, do you have a few? Is there anything you wish you hadn’t written?
I did some gardening product reviews once for a now-defunct online womens' lifestyle ezine with an unhealthy interest in making things sexy which I'd rather forget, thank you.

How has your writing made a difference?
I don't have a clue if it's made a difference to anyone else, though I hope so, somewhere. But (and I risk becoming maudlin and sentimental here) it has made all the difference in the world to me, and my kids, who now get to see me as much as they like (more or less) and have a cheerful and muddy mummy instead of a ground-down dead-end job mummy. And I'm earning a living. It doesn't get much better than that.

Name three favourite words
"Aquamarine", "translucent", "surreptitious" .

…And three words you’re not so keen on
“Sustainable", "naturalistic", "slug".

Do you have a writing mentor, role model or inspiration?
It's really a list of garden writers I admire and would one day like to emulate, even if just a little. Christopher Lloyd (of course); Monty Don (I shall hereby duck the rotten tomatoes: but sorry, I like the man, and I especially like the way he writes). And Frank Ronan in Gardens Illustrated.

What’s your writing ambition?
To keep doing what I'm doing for as long as possible and avoid anyone finding me out.

Plug alert! List any work you would like to tell your readers about:
I've just started writing for the Kew Magazine. And they're sending me on some really plum assignments to write Proper Features - a little daunting, but very satisfying.

Now I think I'm supposed to pick out four of my own favourite writers which is a horribly difficult task: not only are there too many to whittle down to four, but VP has already nicked some of my favourites herself and I don't think it's the done thing to double-meme people.

But anyway, I'll do what I can: here are four taggees (now there's an ugly word) selected at random from those whose writing I particularly admire and would like to hear more about:

Nigel Colborn (yes, I know I've mentioned him already)
Martyn Cox
Lila Das Gupta
Nancy Bond
Arabella Sock

Friday, August 28, 2009

How we spent our weekend #2

A little update on progress with the fishpond...

This is the Bloke's department - far too much precision involved for ditzy old me. The slabs are a sort of mellow limestone left over from a landscaping project on a far posher house than ours - hubby was the carpenter so he came home with a pile of this really rather lovely, though somewhat brittle paving. Since it did crack so easily I was fretting about how to use it - heavy-duty pathways and the like were entirely out of the question - but it turns out it's a shoo-in for crazy paving.

One sticking point, if you'll excuse the pun, was the cement: I simply cannot figure out how you're supposed to lay paving around a pond to hide the edges of the liner without getting cement in the water. This is obviously A Bad Thing as it poisons fish (and no doubt sundry other wriggly things) but absolutely impossible to avoid. In the end we stopped worrying about it too much and simply re-cleaned the pond at the end of the operation.

The finished product: after clearing up those left-over slabs it'll be the tidiest thing in our garden. Next step is the bog garden and a lot of plant shopping. Now that is my department.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Flower art

By Ellie, aged 9, and Ruby, aged 7:

By way of explanation, the pot in the middle is sugar water. They wanted to look at some wasps up close (don't ask) and since Plan A (chase them and catch them with bare hands) proved unworkable though had some interestingly dramatic effects on the hysteria levels among adults in the immediate vicinity, I suggested Plan B, which was to attract them in and watch from a safe distance. They thought the wasps would be more likely to come if they thought the pot was a flower, so they asked if they could pick some petals from the garden to put around the sugar water. It looked so pretty I just had to take a picture.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How we spent our weekend #1

Have small children clamouring for goldfish and pathological hatred of cleaning out fishtanks...

will dig big hole.

Having drawn some interesting but perhaps not shareable conclusions about our domestic soil profile, we added the preformed liner donated by the in-laws (also pestered by said small children. Someone give them something to do - four of the six weeks of summer holidays have been survived but we're getting desperate.)

In a very clever way (mainly because we looked it up on the internet first) we made the hole about 2" deeper than the pond to allow for a layer of sand at the bottom. This was a blessing - the base of the Big Hole was like a particularly stony brand of concrete (see reference to soil profile above) so there was no way we were going to get this baby level without introducing some leeway.

Half-filled to stabilise it and it's looking good - the water is even lining up with those ledge things quite nicely so I guess that means The Bloke can use a spirit level after all. Actually he did most of this, but since he had his shirt off at the time I'm reserving the evidence for my eyes only. We did line up a lot of wheelbarrows (very small ones for the little people) and move dirt. And I got down in the hole with my girlie border spade and shovelled out the bottom bits (to much praise over my digging technique from mud-phobic husband: you see there was a reason for all that gardening, after all).
There's a clue to what we did next in the last picture. This was the technical bit so I withdrew to a safe distance and watched admiringly. Of which more later.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August flowers

Well, the garden has been looking a bit louche around the edges this month - the salvias have flopped over and the cardoons look dangerously close to pitching drunkenly sideways too (must put in that support post soon...). But there are nonetheless dozens of lovely flowers to look at as long as you concentrate on those and ignore the rest.

Thanks as ever to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bigamous blogging

OK I admit it - I've been two-timing my blog.

Those nice people at online retailer Crocus are branching out from their Chelsea medal winning range of herbaceous perennials and such like, and have started selling fruit and veg plants (and seeds). They kindly but perhaps a little foolhardily asked me about my allotment. So I told them. At length. Again and again.

So all my witterings have now become their kitchen garden blog. Actually I've been secretly wanting to do this for ages - I'm a compulsive grower of fruit and veg and have been for years, but only occasionally allow them onto these pages. They will still turn up here from time to time, but now I can also go on about them at great length and in more detail than you could ever have thought possible.

You, too, can live through the harvest of every pea pod by my side: all you have to do is click here....

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A week in Northumberland #5: Last chance to see

On our way home, we stopped off to look at a big ol' wall in a farmer's field (the kind of thing you do in these parts). We found a nice big chunk, and once we'd looked at it and jumped up and down on top of it and stuff - not exactly what the Romans had in mind but there we are - we spotted a sign to Chesters Walled Garden.

This was something of a coincidence as I'd just been reading an article on herb gardens by one Susie White, who, the magazine mentioned, ran a herb garden called... Chesters.

We had to pop inside. Or rather, I had to, with small children and resigned hubby in tow. They soon changed their tune: we were all instantly transfixed by loveliness. I have never seen so many flowers packed into such a small space. It was a riot, a symphony, a heavenly chorus of colour: who says you can't make a garden look good in late summer? Just feast your eyes on this lot.

Of course, pictures don't tell the whole story: here, the air you breathe is saturated with perfume, and your ears are buzzing with drunken bees - I have never, never seen so many bumblebees in one garden before. The tranquillity of the place settles over you like a favourite quilt, and you can lose yourself in just wandering and looking.

Now for the sting in the tail: this garden will no longer exist after this year.

It turns out Susie is only leasing the land, and the landlords have pulled the plug. It may have been built in the 18th century, and the current garden has taken over 20 years to create: but it has just a few months left, and has to close by next May. Susie is now looking for another garden in the area to house her national collection of thyme and the many thousands of plants to which she has devoted the last couple of decades. To find out what happens next, you can visit her blog or the garden's website: such a gardener will undoubtedly make another paradise every bit as beautiful, but my heart goes out to her and I wish her the very, very best of luck.

Friday, August 07, 2009

What I was doing at 12:34:56 on 07/08/09

I'd just like to interrupt my wanderings around Northumberland to let you know what I was doing at 12:34:56 on the 7th of the 8th month in the 9th year of the century.

I was feeding my poor dog an antibiotic pill wrapped up in mince (he hates pills of all kinds so a little cunning deception is required). This is not entirely a Northumberland-free post as the reason for the antibiotics, and the very silly collar, is that he gave himself a nasty cut in the leg leaping over a barbed wire fence while we were on holiday, so now has chalked up several stitches and a £500 vet's bill.

In case anyone's wondering why, it's because that mischievous but ever-original VP in Chippenham told me to :D Thanks for a fun meme, VP!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A week in Northumberland #4: A wee wonder

Let me take you along a rain-slick path into a hidden garden of dripping ferns, towering leaves and vividly coloured blooms. It's raining, of course (we are in Northumberland, after all) but the garden is glistening and jungle-like: proof, if proof were needed, that a misty drizzle is every bit as romantic as sunshine. This was my discovery of the week.

Bide-a-Wee Cottage and its delightful nursery, near Morpeth in Northumberland, is open from May to August, on Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons only. I'm told that June, when the Himalayan lilies are in flower, is the best month to go. If you can't get there - they have a pretty fabby online mail order service, too.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A week in Northumberland #3: Poisonous plants

Perhaps the most talked-about bit of an already very talked-about garden is Alnwick Garden's Poison Garden. You're only allowed inside the locked gates with a guide, no doubt mainly because of those pesky health and safety types but in fact a handy way of emphasising just how dangerous these plants can be.

Here you'll find plants in cages. A cannabis plant grown with a special Defra license and a (admittedly a little weedy-looking and therefore not very scary) Datura or two are among the prison population.

There are also a lot of very familiar plants, and as someone who likes to think they know their plants well enough to be pretty sure which ones to avoid, it was distinctly unsettling to learn that ivy, box, and laurel are among the harmful plants with a place in this garden.

So - if you spot any of this motley crew lurking in your beds and borders, or indeed in the hedgerows and fields: be afraid... be very afraid...

Hemlock is a member of the parsley family and looks alarmingly similar to cow parsley in the wild - but it smells like mice and has bright pink stems

Hemlock (Conium maculatum): Probably the most famous poisonous plant of them all, and still found commonly in the countryside. When Socrates used it to commit suicide I don't suppose anyone mentioned to him that it paralyses you from the feet upwards. So you're entirely conscious while it numbs first your legs, then your torso, and finally stops your lungs from working so you suffocate. Meanwhile the brain is entirely unaffected, and remains lucid throughout. Mmm. Nice.

Ivy (Hedera spp): Ever noticed when you're pruning a big mass of ivy that you start coughing? That's not just because it's dusty under there because it's the first time you've clipped it back for centuries. You're breathing in saponins, which in quantity can lead to laboured breathing, convulsions and eventually coma. So next time, wear a face mask.

Box (Buxus sempervirens): If you're clipping box hedges, don't wander off and have a cup of tea before you pick up all the little bits that have dropped on the ground. As they dry, they release buxine, and if you touch it, it'll give you an irritating skin rash.

Even boring old laurel can bite

Daffodils (Narcissus spp): People eat daffodils thinking they're onions. No, really - it's true. Unfortunately the law of natural selection doesn't apply here: though eating as little as half a bulb gives a nasty stomach complaint, it won't rid the world of someone with a criminal lack of common sense.

Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus): Now this one came as a complete surprise. If you stack all your prunings in a big bag and stuff them in the back of the car, then think, "oh sod it, I can't be bothered to go to the tip today" you will pay for your laziness with a car full of cyanide fumes in the morning. Apparently entomologists kill bugs by putting them in a jar with crushed laurel leaves. Much the same principle, really.

Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale): Crikey, you don't want to be mistaking this one for onions. In fact most people don't: they mistake it for wild garlic, which it greatly resembles (a lot more than daffodils resemble onions, I suspect). Symptoms sound like something out of a particularly gruesome episode of Casualty: convulsions, cardiovascular collapse and multiple organ failure. Apparently it's a lot like dying of cholera.

Rue is deadly - though the bees don't seem to mind

Rue (Ruta graveolens): Ever heard of the phrase, "Rue the day"? As in, "I rue the day I ever planted this damn thing in my herb garden?" Well though this is a very pretty plant, and found in lots of people's herb gardens, it's really quite a vicious little thing. Brushing against it, especially on a sunny day, can blister skin to the point of burns: what's really extraordinary though is that rue is often recommended (and grown in people's herb gardens) for rubbing onto the skin as a mosquito repellent. Please don't do this: mosquito bites will seem as the kiss of angels in comparison. Eating it causes acute gastroenteritis and eventually liver failure, though fortunately it tastes disgusting.

I've left out the obvious poisonous plants we all (hopefully) know about: the monkshoods, cuckoo pints and nettles which all gardeners should handle with care. But there are a whole lot more - aquilegias, cimicifuga, periwinkles, snowdrops and daphnes to name but a few - which I could have included and which you should know about.

I'm indebted to John Robertson, a former guide at Alnwick's Poison Garden, for supplementing my patchy recollections with extra information: and if you want to know about the bits I've left out, I can only direct you to his exceptionally good website where all these plants and more are described in gruesome detail.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A week in Northumberland #2: Alnwick Gardens

The most celebrated gardens in Northumberland are without doubt those of Alnwick Castle. As it happens, they're also among the newest: a slightly hyperactive television series a few years ago brought their creation to public attention and they've been a big talking point ever since.

Designed by the Belgian landscapers Jacques and Peter Wirtz, and enabled by the dynamic, lively and therefore not-very-Duchess-like Duchess of Northumberland, they are among the most exciting gardens in the country. I loved the mix of the historic and the very modern, the celebration of plants, and above all how much sheer laugh-out-loud fun it all was.

At the heart of the garden is water. This is the only garden I've come across which takes such great delight in reviving the 500-year-old Italian Renaissance sport of Giochi d'Acqua - garden water games. The massive central cascade that dominates the garden is highly dramatic at the best of times - but when it plays, on the hour and on the half-hour, it's enough to make you gape in wonder.

The garden luxuriates in water: it's just everywhere. I loved these funky swirly rills...

...and the way this fountain pours down the steps from the European Garden at the top.

Best of all there are no 'keep off' signs here: the kids are positively encouraged to get wet (you're advised to take a spare set of clothing for them in the brochure) and my girls couldn't believe their luck.

Now in case you're wondering where all the plants are...

The Ornamental Garden at the top of the cascade is on just as grand a scale as the rest of the garden. It's the sort of place where (at the risk of sounding like an M&S advert) you don't just have a pergola: you have a hand-built, 20-foot-high pergola swagged with roses around a bubbling pool. You don't just have a seating area: you have a staggeringly high dome of elegantly-wrought iron clothed in rambling roses and Clematis montana and get a crick in your neck looking at it. Well... you get the general picture.

The formal structure here is just marvellous, and also breathtaking in its scale. Parterre after parterre clicks into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, defined by crisp box and secluded by pleached crabapples. Like the water cascades, it's a modern design celebrating ancient traditions.

The middle parterres were filled with a froth of roses - this one's 'Just Joey', and the scent was heavenly.

The surrounding beds, along the mellow old brick walls, were where the plantsperson's delights were. Now, at the risk of sounding like I'm carping, it wasn't the most inspiring planting I've ever seen: but in their defence, I think I probably caught the borders in their mid-summer slump, and I suspect they would have looked less weary earlier, or indeed later in the year.

Which is not to say there weren't some choice finds in there.

Don't you just love this blue? The bluest blue salvia I've ever seen, labelled as S. patens 'Blue Angel'.

Bees were everywhere: here squeezing the last few drops of nectar from Anthemis tinctoria 'Susan Mitchell'. I liked the way they left the heads on instead of dead-heading (my usual knee-jerk reaction to anthemis at the end of its season): they looked like palest yellow pincushions dancing in the breeze.

And last but not least, I discovered this extraordinary hydrangea. It's H. sargentiana, with giant leaves the sultry rough green of old velvet and flowers the slate-purple of a thundery afternoon. Big and moody: I loved it.
For more about the garden, and the many new projects the Duchess has planned for the coming years (including a skating lake - worth a return visit for that alone) there's a website to visit; or you can come back here tomorrow for part two.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A week in Northumberland #1

Come with me, gentle reader, to a little corner of England I bet most of you have only ever gazed at wearily from the window of a car (or train) while hoping it's not too long till Edinburgh (it's not).

Northumberland may be one of the largest counties in England, but it's also one of the emptiest, partly because everyone is too impatient to get to next-door Scotland to stop there, and partly because the few people who do live there keep it close to their stout and farmerly chests.

It's also one of the most beautiful, and even (I'm bracing myself for getting lynched in short order by sundry broad-vowelled people as I write this) outdoes Yorkshire for the sheer volume, to say nothing of idyllic beauty, of its countryside. Best of all, it has some of the most inspirational gardens in England.

Just to whet your appetite - here's a taste of what you can expect to find there:

PS the sharp-eyed among you may notice that Holy Island is conspicuous by its absence. That's because I couldn't see it beneath the three thousand other people crammed on there along with me. Come to think of it, maybe that's where all the people in Northumberland had got to. Anyway, for a place that's meant to be a haven of spiritual reflection and romantic mysticism, it had a very unholy number of chip vans and push buggies. It's enough to make you start writing letters to the National Trust and English Heritage, both of whom should know better. Harrumph.
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