Thursday, January 28, 2010

Garden words: Gardens as Art #2

I must confess I find portraits a bit boring. Those po-faced people you see lining the oak-panelled walls of stately homes were probably delightful people who would have made deliciously witty dinner guests, but as portraits they've never done much for me.

Well - now I know better. Now I know to look over their shoulders.

Roy Strong's 'The Artist and the Garden' is proving a revelation, and I suspect I may never see old paintings in quite the same way again.

This is probably the most famous painting where the background has caused more of a stir than the foreground:

You may well recognise the big fat king in the middle, but don't look at him - take a peek through those arches on either side. This painting hangs in Hampton Court (holiday home, of course, to Henry VIII) and the glimpse of a garden in the background is just about all that is known of Tudor gardens of the time. A Tudor garden has in fact been entirely recreated, at Hampton Court, complete with snazzy green-and-white raised beds and heraldic beasts on poles, on evidence taken pretty much solely from this painting.

This is Thomas More and family, painted in 1593-4 and currently in the V&A. Yes we all know he was executed for daring to stand up to Henry VIII but never mind that - just look at that garden. That's a hortus conclusus - an enclosed, mediaeval garden and rare evidence that even then they were doing garden rooms, fenced off with clipped hedges of whitebeam or privet.

And how about this, from 1641? Never mind Arthur 1st Baron Capel and his family - that's a heck of a garden back there. It is in fact Hadham Hall in Hertfordshire in all its glory, as it was laid out in the late 1630s. The people in the portrait mostly came to a sticky end (particularly Arthur who was executed shortly after Charles I for his loyalty to the king - spectacular example of backing the wrong horse) and so did the Elizabethan house - it was partially destroyed by fire and is now a secondary school. But at the time it boasted the most extravagant garden of its age, and this is one of the best - and only - depictions of its former grandeur. You can see it at the National Portrait Gallery.

This young lady, to be found at the National Maritime Museum, is my favourite though. She's Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, painted in 1603, but never mind that. See that structure behind her right shoulder? That's worth a closer look.

It's an arbour, and it's made entirely of pleached trees. Apparently you plant a ring of trees, then pleach the tops into a 'roof'. You can incorporate extra carpentry - as here - and then plant another tree in the centre and pleach it like an umbrella to make a secondary tier. According to Sir Roy, this is the only representation we have of tree pleaching on this scale in England, although it was quite common in Italy (the Medicis, of course) and the Netherlands.

If there's one garden design feature which deserves to be resurrected, this has to be it. Anyone short of ideas for next year's Chelsea?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Discovering new plants: A is for....


Welcome to another project of mine for this year. Now I grow a lot of plants, in my own and others' gardens: but for some years now, they've all been pretty much the same plants. I've added a few to my repertoire, but they've usually been plants I know a lot about already, so they're a pretty safe bet (and I've usually wanted to grow them for ages, finally got my hands on them... you know the drill).

It occurred to me some time about the end of last year that this might not be a very good thing. There are definite and really quite gaping gaps in my plant knowledge: I have never in my life, for example, grown a Deutzia of any description, even though they're common as muck.

So I figured this year I'd change all that. I've picked up my well-thumbed bible, aka the Readers Digest New Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers, and I'm going to work my way through the alphabet picking a new (for me) genus for each letter to get to know in my garden. It's a bit random, as plant studies go, but it'll have to do.

So this month I've been off shopping for Abelias. A relative of the honeysuckle according to the late great Fred Whitsey, it's late-summer flowering, some borderline hardy, but relishing conditions just such as I have in my garden - i.e. well-drained and sunny.

There are lots of them but I've gone for A. x grandiflora - a hybrid between A. chinensis and A. uniflora. Mr Whitsey says all abelias are named for a Dr Clarke-Abel who worked as a surgeon to a Chinese mission in the early 1800s (now that must have been a heck of a job). For light relief he went off plant collecting, and came back with A. chinensis - borderline hardy, very pale pink, and a bit pretty for my liking. Actually he didn't quite come back with them as he was shipwrecked on the way home and lost his seeds, which seems a bit unfair, but luckily he'd already given some to a friend so they made it back to the UK without him.

Anyway: A. x grandiflora has an AGM which makes me well-disposed towards it right from the start. It's semi-evergreen, only dropping its leaves in very cold winters, and looks a bit like a slightly chunky evergreen spiraea, if you can imagine such a thing.

Browsing around the garden centre I could only see variegated abelias with leaves in bilious shades of mottled pink and cream which rather put me off. But luckily in a corner there was a little shrub with vibrant non-variegated yellow leaves: promising, except abelias are known to be pink, and yellow leaves with pink flowers is the combination from hell (hide your head in shame, Spiraea japonica 'Goldflame'). On closer inspection, though, the label says the flowers on this one are white: and what's more it has "bronze-gold" leaves in autumn. Mmmmm.... sounds lovely.

Clutching my purchase I made a bee-line as soon as I got home for my online RHS Plantfinder only to find that the cultivar, 'Brockhill Allgold', isn't listed anywhere. I appear to have chosen a fictitious plant.

Well, it's not the most promising start to my voyage of discovery. But it'll have to do. I shall keep you updated with how I'm getting on with all my new kids on the block later in the year.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bargain hunting

Off down the garden centre on a hot tip this weekend to find spring bulbs slashed to just 50p a packet!

I bought the lot, or at least one packet of every variety - that was 11 packets of bulbs for £5.50. For the first time in my life I think I understand the feral look in the eyes of those ladies you see elbowing each other out of the way in the January sales.

Got home and had a happy hour divvying them up into likely combinations according to predicted size and blooming times to go into containers on my patio.

I'm in good company planting them this late in the season, and in fact it seems I'm a bit slow on the uptake - it seems everyone else is well clued up on this bit of late-winter bargain hunting. The general consensus seems to be that since they're a month or two late in the planting they'll also be a month or two late flowering - but they will flower eventually. So I made a note of the dates they were meant to flower too so I can do a little experiment and find out just how late it makes them to plant at this time of year.

Now I have the following to look forward to, whenever they decide to show up:

Chionodoxa luciliae followed by Oxalis adenophylla

Puschkinia scilloides libanotica and Narcissus lobularis

Chionodoxa again, mixed colours this time, followed by Anemone blanda

Crocus chrysanthus var. fuscotinctus followed by Scilla siberica with a final flourish from mixed Ixia

Anemone coronaria 'St Brigid' possibly but not probably overlapping with Tulipa 'Rococo'

The relative timings are, of course, a lottery, and who knows what will come up when. But that's half the fun of it. Come to think of it, a lot more fun than doing it when you're supposed to.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Garden words: Gardens as art

I seem to have been spending an awful lot of time in the 16th century lately.

First it was Adam Nicolson in Arcadia - highly intelligent and full of insights into life in Tudor, Elizabethan and Restoration England, but basically not about gardens. Something of a surprise, since it's based on Wilton which is, or rather was, one of England's great iconic gardens. He seemed inexplicably preoccupied with the house and its sundry Earls: just 'cos they hung out with Henry VIII doesn't mean they're more interesting than the garden, you know.

Anyway: now I'm wading into the history of the garden in art, in the company of the erudite and it must be said, himself rather iconic (or should that be iconoclastic?) Sir Roy Strong. Former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, and designer of bits of HRH Prince Charles's garden at Highgrove as well as author of a lot of weighty books and trustee of various charitable trusts. When you read CVs like that it just makes you want to go and curl up under the carpet.

Gardens started appearing in art for the first time in - you guessed it - the 16th century. But before I plunged into Tudor England again, I had Sir Roy's introduction to read, and that really made me think.

When you seek to picture a garden, do you set out to record an accurate representation of what the garden actually looks like? Or do you seek to capture a mood, a transient atmosphere, the feeling the garden evokes in you when you look at it?

Does it matter if you don't - ever - record pictures of exactly how the garden looks in its entirety? Does it matter if you get the layout wrong?

The thing is, in the 16th century it really did matter, although they didn't know it at the time. Gardens depicted in paintings - sometimes merely glimpsed behind the shoulder of a portrait's subject - are often our only source of historical record on the existence of entire garden styles. Garden historians have pieced together more or less the entire history of the knot garden from throwaway sketches of them in the corners of Elizabethan paintings. And we're guilty of much the same thing even today, with our 'plant porn' photos of pouting paeonies and our moody shots of good-looking corners here or well-planted pathways there.

But perhaps that's the point. Gardens are art: and if you don't record it as such, you miss an essential part of their soul. As Sir Roy writes:

"Whether on paper, panel or canvas the garden picture bestows an immortality comparable to the portrait, enabling the viewer to walk through an existing, lost or imagined garden. The artist's role was essentially to capture this transient and fragile art, one which was subject to the mutation of the seasons and the vicissitudes of time in a way unknown, for example, to a building."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Moving matters #2: Seeing things through others' eyes

Well, things are progressing rapidly on the house-moving front: we've had our HIPs report done (what are they for, exactly?) and now we've had the details drawn up, so on my desk I have a leaflet all about our house as seen by others.

This has been something of an eye-opener. You get so used to complaining about this or that little niggle, and carping on about the stuff that you know needs doing but you haven't got around to, that you forget that overall it's not actually that bad. In fact, it's quite nice, really.

This is particularly so with the garden. I know just how dreadful my garden is: after all, I've seen all those perfect gardens you go visit during summer, and I know what a good garden looks like. Not like my garden, that's for sure.

Whenever I look at my garden, I see the borders near the house which don't have as much winter structure as they should and are an odd shape which I've been meaning to change for years. Then the middle section is what can only be politely described as a "work in progress": we've had an ongoing bonfire there for a while and that's where all the piles of compost or sand or bricks have been dumped while we've been doing our bits of landscaping. The kids' area, where the fishpond is, needs a bit of a weed-through and there's a path to be put in.

The wildlife pond and exotic-ish garden are another work in progress: the intended boardwalk is still just planks on the ground. And the muddy chicken run with its half-pruned apple trees (a current project but temporarily kiboshed by the foul weather) is hardly a model fruit garden.

But get this. Someone comes round our house to see what we've got, and although admittedly they're trying to sell the place, they can't actually lie. And this is what they wrote about my garden.

The front is "landscaped with deep semi-circular well-stocked border" and "pretty beech hedging". And as for the back: it's "very substantial", apparently, and those odd-shaped beds near the house are transformed into "formal gardens" with "well-stocked shrub and flower borders". Our chicken-run apple trees are a "mini-orchard" and we have a "large timber shed", "triple compost heap" and "mature trees".

Blimey, I'd go and look at it myself if I read that lot. I don't know whether to laugh at the triumph of estate-agent speak over reality, or wonder if my garden is, really, a bit nicer than I thought it was. For now I think I shall just allow myself to be very flattered.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Gardening on air #2: Not a lot of people know this but...

Quotes from the priceless interview with Michael Caine for the Christmas edition of Desert Island Discs, which I've only just got around to listening to (we recorded it, so apologies to those of you for whom this is old news):

"I bought a mill house at Windsor which had a private gate on to Windsor racetrack. It was funny because I had about five or six acres there right on the edge of the Thames, and the Queen had the right to go through a gate and the path at the back of my garden. And so it was quite extraordinary, one day I'd be gardening and I'd look up and the Queen would go by in a Range Rover. She just waved."

"I took [my mother] to Beverley Hills for the first time. It was in the middle of winter here, like January, and of course in Beverley Hills all the flowers were out. We were driving through it talking and I said, looking out of the window, ‘What do you think of it, Mum?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s lovely, all that hysteria growing up the walls.'"

I shall never think of climbing wisteria in quite the same way again. Unfortunately you can't listen to the programme again (copyright restrictions or some such) but you can take a look at his esoteric music choices - most of them, I'm convinced, chosen by his teenagers as a wind-up for Kirsty Lang - here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Plant of the month: January

Buxus sempervirens

Sometimes there are moments when you're really, really grateful for the boring plants in your garden.

If the garden is a stage, box is the understudy. For most of the year, all but un-noticed, it does its job quietly and uncomplainingly, taking a back seat, never seeking attention, supporting the star cast and for all I know making them regular cups of tea.

But in winter, it's different. In winter, box steps shyly out into centre stage. All around her are tiring, fading, looking definitely jaded. A coat of frost turns them to brown and unlovely mush. But not box.

A crisply clipped box hedge frosted with silver is one of the most beautiful sights of the winter garden. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that no garden is entirely complete without one. They look fantastic in modern gardens and elegant in traditional ones. They can be whimsical, magical, artistic or geometric; box balls may be verging dangerously close to the clich├ęd these days, but what of box cubes, box columns, box spirals or box pyramids?

And it's so well-behaved. It doesn't grow too quickly - or too slowly. It doesn't have any fussy requirements about soil, and it's obligingly happiest in shade. It isn't damaged by frost, or hail, or snow, and doesn't demand primping or preening or much attention at all beyond a haircut a couple of times a year.

My little box hedge in the front garden is still in its fluffy and slightly wayward infancy: it hasn't quite knitted together yet and still carries more than a whiff of its wild cousins growing near us on Box Hill. But even so when I look down on the half-circles it draws so effortlessly and cleanly in the gravel of my drive, I marvel that this is the one thing in my garden I'm properly pleased with. All year round - whether you're looking at it or not. And that, if you ask me, is true star quality.

Friday, January 15, 2010

January ex-flowers, non-flowers and would-be flowers

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day? In this weather? To quote the effusive Mr Gervais, are you 'aving a larf?

Regular readers may remember I rarely have flowers around in winter even in the best of years, so it's even more unlikely in my spring- and summer-flowering garden. I've planted a winter-flowering clematis (C. cirrhosa 'Freckles') and a Viburnum davidii this year to up the quota, but they're still establishing themselves and resolutely refusing to flower. And one of the little tragedies of my year has been that the Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' I planted last spring - one of my desert island plants - really, really hates my acid soil and is languishing sorrily in my front garden at the moment with only a few miserable-looking leaves left. Must dig it up again and put it in a pot before it turns up its toes altogether.

However - a little walk around my garden with my camera, more in hope than expectation, and look what turned up:

the slightly spooky seedheads on my Rudbeckia 'Herbstsonne'

Camellia flowers looking promising

Pyracantha 'Saphyr Jaune' - the only one not stripped by the birds weeks ago

Helleborus argutifolius

beefy puffballs of cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

the promise of ceanothus blooms to come

under the snow, the violas are stirring

...and poking their cheery little heads up

more spookiness from blackened rosehips

and the first of spring's hellebores (mainly Helleborus orientalis) are emerging from the ground.

And there was I feeling grumpy and cabin-feverish and thinking I had nothing to look at. Feeling much better now, thanks!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A walk on the wild side

Thistle seedhead catching the sunshine (before the snows came)

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time wandering through countryside, usually with dog in tow, and it's hard to do that without appreciating just how remarkable wild plants and flowers are. They don't get so much as a smidgin of attention from us, yet they seed themselves, grow up bravely fighting off all manner of weeds (actually they often are weeds) and pests and make it to adulthood to produce a heart-stopping flower of their own. As a gardener it's all a bit humbling.

So since I often think they look at least as pretty as garden flowers I thought I'd give them their own spot in the limelight here, starting with a thistle I kind of wish I had in my garden as its seedheads were nicer (and much more sturdy) than most of mine have been this winter. But then the whole point of wildflowers is that they aren't in your garden, and you wouldn't want them to be if they were (I spend a lot of time and prickled fingers pulling thistles out of my garden, in fact). So I give you the thistle: in its own place and its own time, and long may it stay there so we can be stopped in our tracks while out dog-walking.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oy! Gerroff me geraniums!

Would you just look at this?

This has been going on for a month now, and at first I put it down to a bit of frost damage - this is Geranium maderense, after all, I'm trying to coax it through the worst winter since I were a nipper, and despite the best efforts of my little fan heater it's still a bit parky in the greenhouse.

But then I arrive for a quick check round this morning and....

Now, I think to myself, if it weren't January and a foot deep in snow outside and minus 7 at night and generally BLOODY COLD I'd think that was caterpillar damage.


Oh yes it is. A closer inspection revealed a small but nonetheless inescapably green caterpillar munching away at my geraniums. Not just this one but also the overwintering pelargoniums which are losing their leaves not through the usual culprits of downy mildew plus a touch of the chills, but blimmin' cabbage white caterpillars. In winter! In a seriously cold, frosty winter!

With a yelp of horror and outrage I'm afraid I chucked the culprit out of the door into the snow in a fit of vindictiveness and it was pounced upon by the chicken so I don't have photographic proof, and you'll just have to take my word for it. A good hunt through has not revealed another one.... yet. But my dander is now up (whatever is a dander, do you think?) and I shall be inspecting with an eagle eye every morning from now on. I also crushed a couple of sleepy aphids and a blackfly while on patrol, so clearly letting your guard down on pest control isn't on the cards even in this weather. Is there no rest, I ask you?

Incidentally in case you're wondering what cabbage whites are doing eating geraniums: if they can't find cabbages then pelargoniums and geraniums are fair game for all the brassica caterpillars as I discovered a couple of years ago when a big brown caterpillar eating a client's pelargoniums was a cabbage moth caterpillar. So pelargoniums taste like cabbages. Apparently.

And here's a bit of advice: don't grow calabrese in your greenhouse. Even if you've grown too many seedlings, can't bear to throw them away and it's the only place you've got left. Especially in a record-breaking caterpillar year.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Moving matters #1: Getting ready

Well I was going to bring you a picture of all my little cuttings, carefully taken at the end of last year and now hunkered down over winter to (hopefully) root and produce oodles of new plants for me to take with me when (if?) I move house this year.

But this is all I've seen of them for the last month: they're in my coldframe and of course that means covered by a good few inches of snow. So I have no idea how they're doing, whether my root cuttings have rotted off into hopeless mush or my carefully-trimmed hardwood cuttings have shrivelled into wizened sticks. At the moment I'm choosing the optimistic view as both root cuttings and hardwood cuttings are tough as nails (that's why you can get away with taking them at this time of year) and survive just about anything.

I'm trying to avoid stripping the garden bare when/if the new occupants move in and leaving them with a crater-pocked landscape of bare earth to look at. It seems a bit curmudgeonly somehow to take everything I can get my hands on, a bit like removing the light switches.

Cuttings, of course, are the best possible way of taking it all with you without... well... taking it all with you. So I've got root cuttings of my beloved 'Goliath' poppies (twelve of them... where I'm going to put twelve Goliath poppies, new garden or no new garden, I have no idea) and hardwood cuttings of my 'Ben Lomond' blackcurrants and my louche-flowered and deliciously scented apothecary's rose (Rosa gallica var. officinalis). All of which take reliably from cuttings so I don't have to worry too much about failures (though that, of course, is without factoring in a thirty-year record snowfall).

I'm eyeing up my little one-year-old box hedge in the front garden, thinking I might take a hundred or so cuttings from them just to avoid having to buy another pile of box hedging when/if I arrive at my palatial new pad; and I shall sweep through the garden taking as many softwood cuttings as I can in April, assuming as I think I safely can that we're still here and haven't found someone to fall in love with our house and simultaneously a new house to fall in love with by then. There are a few plants I can't leave behind - like my growing Hemerocallis collection, most of it kept in trust for the NCCPG, or Plant Heritage as I should call it these days, via its plant exchange. And perhaps one or two things which a less-than-horticulturally-minded buyer might not fully appreciate, like my Euphorbia mellifera and my loquat tree. But I'm aiming to keep the garden more-or-less presentable at least: after all, what kind of gardener would I be if I wasn't willing to share the love and give away a few plants here and there?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ice fishing

Every morning I set off down the frozen garden with a saucepan of steaming, bubbling water in my hand, to do a little pond maintenance.

Not having had pond fish before - we created this little fishpond late last summer - this is something of a new experience for me. Breaking the ice can apparently kill goldfish (something to do with sound waves travelling more easily through water, so it sounds something like a bomb going off which in a two-foot pond would make anyone keel over in shock), so melting it is the only way, however silly you look. Actually, it makes me feel a bit like one of those Eskimos crouching on the snow keeping the fishing hole open. Though I don't suppose they do it by watching a saucepan slowly capsizing into the water beneath.

All this hard work is for the benefit of Peanut and Mango, who have not been seen since about November. I'm hoping they're tucked away under the slab we thoughtfully propped across two of the shelves in the pre-fabbed liner, snoozing away the winter (hibernation is beginning to seem unduly attractive by this stage in winter, I find, though I'd probably prefer not to do it in near-freezing water). I'm trying to resist the urge to drop a fishing line in there to find out how they are.

The irises and that fluffy grassy stuff - I think it's Eriophorum angustifolium, aka cotton grass - are fine, and the waterlily died down well before the big freeze so I assume is also happily hibernating. But the water hyacinths have had it and are frozen in brown, semi-decayed death halfway in and out of the ice as I forgot to lift them and put them in a bucket in a frost-free greenhouse like I was meant to some time back in October.

Now I can't remove them as they're part of the icy scenery, and I'm just hoping they won't have turned the water stagnant before it all defrosts again. My heart is in my mouth every day lest Peanut and Mango should one day be found to have joined them in icy suspension floating on the surface: but so far, so good.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Gardening on air

Another little occasional strand for the New Year here: as well as being an avid book-reader, I'm an obsessive Radio 4 listener, though without the tendency (or time) to write cross letters to Feedback every five minutes (I just shout at the radio in the privacy of my own kitchen instead).
The radio accompanies me out into the garden when I'm up for a long session, and I therefore get to listen to alot of those funny, quirky little daytime programmes which pop up more or less at random when relatively few people are able to listen to them. This means I often hear horticultural snippets buried in programmes masquerading as something else entirely unrelated to gardening: and it seems a bit of a shame to let them drift off unremarked into the ether so I thought I'd give them a little mention here instead.

Open Country last week, for example, went to visit Elspeth Owen, who is frankly bonkers though rather endearing in an English eccentric sort of way (do visit her website - it's quite extraordinary). She's an artist and grandmother, and at the age of 71 chose to celebrate last month's blue moon by living outside in the Cambridgeshire Fens with nothing to separate her from the sub-zero December temperatures but a three-sided open shelter. Which makes her more of an endurance competitor than a seeker of profound truths, but anyway....

Elspeth is not only a keen composter (though she says she's now iffy about adding her number twos after someone told her you should only do that if you're vegetarian) but also the daughter of a keen gardener. This meant she was particularly appreciative of the wild pear tree growing nearby, and I loved the image she used:

"It has these rather unappealing-looking really hard, hard fruit but it has the most incredible blossom... When we very first came to live here and I was looking at it from a distance, I thought the blossom was a sail, because it was down by the river. Of course, you couldn't have a sail on this river really: but I can remember that moment and it made it something magical."

Thanks to the wonder that is Listen Again, you can enjoy the programme in its entirety here: as well as composting and wild pears it encompasses the training of husky dogs, a singing post (aka a farmer's metal gatepost) and midnight bead-burying rituals. Only in England, eh?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Garden words

I've almost always got some book or other about gardening on the go, and as time goes on I find I'm moving gradually away from the how-to manuals and towards what I call literary gardening books - inspirational and interesting more than useful (though they're often that, too).

There are plenty of others who do fantastic book review strands - so I won't do that. But as a way of passing on a little of that inspiration I thought I'd start a little thread here sharing some of the best bits.

At the moment I'm reading Adam Nicolson's 'Arcadia' - the history of Wilton House, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, and my mum's local stately home. We visit it a lot, and I love the garden although it is a shadow of its former extraordinary and ground-breaking self.

Adam Nicolson has an impeccable horticultural background (son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, therefore grew up at Sissinghurst, and married to the very productive but hopelessly expensive Sarah Raven). So it was a bit of a surprise to find that this is not, mainly, a book about the garden but about a more philosophical concept: the creation of Arcadian paradise in Tudor England and beyond.

This makes it quite hard going at times, but the book has a habit of chucking out absolute truths that really stop you in your tracks. I shall leave you with one paragraph written about 16th-century England, but with as much resonance, to my mind, for post-war Britain:

"It happens again and again in the history of cultures. A generation of severe, rigorous, demanding and ambitious parents, who establish a form of order and riches, gives way, in the next generation, to a more evolved world, one more intent on fineness than propriety, happy to spend what the parents had earned, indifferent to debt, more interested in display than restraint, more attuned to brilliance and intricacy than mere obstinacy and assertion."

Monday, January 04, 2010

Horticultural knitting

I'm quite easy to buy Christmas presents for, since more or less anything gardening-related will do (except plants: friends and relatives learn quickly that if I haven't asked for it, it's horrible to grow/horrible to look at/horrible to look after and I WON'T LIKE IT. Call me picky, but it's better just not to buy them for me. Sorry.)

But among many lovely green-fingered gifts this year was one that made me laugh out loud, and neatly combined my other secret obsession: knitting.

Jan Messent's Knitted Gardens, given to me by my sister-in-law, is the wackiest but most wonderful idea I've ever come across. It strikes me this may be the perfect way for the frustrated gardener to while away the winter months while still getting that all-important horticultural fix.

It's pretty straightforward, and I suspect rapidly becomes very addictive. I don't know who made the gardens photographed for the book itself but they're exquisite: every flower is picked out, every fence scrambling with climbers, every shrub a riot of blossom and fuzzy woolly colour. There are veg gardens for the allotment-minded and very ornamental gardens for those who prefer flowers. And, this being unaffected by the seasons, you can make your garden any way you want it.

Apologies for the photographs here - they're just pics of the book - but I got very carried away by these. This one on the left is a cottage garden - it's actually a wall hanging and this is just one section of it. The row of cottages with their knitted roofs and crocheted conifers and the perfect pathways are just so gorgeous.

Jan tactfully mentions that this wasn't the work of just one person: she does suggest that if you're doing this yourself you should probably enlist the help of your local schoolchildren or at the very least the nearest WI. But oh, my knitting fingers are itching.... I can feel myself about to embark on a very silly project here.

This isn't the only thing in the book, mind you: there are some throws (nice) and a to-die-for potager bedspread like a perfect little herb garden complete with loopy green wool lavender.

I may work my way up to the wall-hanging by way of the bedspread (that should take me at least five years at the current rate of progress: I am the world's slowest knitter and the stack of projects-in-progress is also high and getting higher). I'll have a warm-up with this - the smallest project in the book and a little vegetable-garden-on-a-cushion. Complete with cabbages, caulis, carrots and leeks...

If there has ever been a reason to take up knitting, this surely has to be it.

Now, once I get to the wall-hanging.... I feel a communal knitting project coming on. Any keen knitters out there want to help me out in about 10 years' time?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year! and some answers...

Reasons to be cheerful in 2010:

1. It's so bloody cold at the moment we're sure to have a lovely warm spring. (I hope the gardening gods are taking note).

2. I'm going to Borneo in March. (yay!)

3. Against all predictions, the Chelsea Flower Show is looking like it's going to be a corker this year.

4. We're all still here! I wonder what we'll get up to...

Reasons to be a bit apprehensive in 2010:

Say it quietly....

I'm going to be moving house.... probably.

Yeah, I know. Scary. The "probably" is because from where I'm sitting at the moment, the chances of getting someone to agree to buy our slightly dog-eared (and dog-haired) not to mention small-children-soiled semi, and at the same time finding something that's a) ridiculously cheap, b) stunningly beautiful and c) satisfactory not only to me but also to hubby and small people seem vanishingly small. But anyway, I shall be sharing every terrifying twist and turn with you in mind-numbing and gruesomely gory detail through the year, since of course I'm looking not for a house, but for a garden. But don't tell my hubby that.

Now, it has come to my notice that I made the advent calendar just too damn difficult, as I haven't had a single correct answer. So I'm going to go the other way now and make it just pathetically easy by giving you the answers to what's behind the windows. I shall then sit back and wait for the deluge. Once you've unravelled the anagram, send me the name of the prize (three words, two of them a well-known designer, you know the drill) plus the plant genus I'm looking for (one word) and if you're first off the mark you can have a nice late Christmas present from me.

So: with the letters you need highlighted in bold, here are the answers to the 2009 Garden Bloggers' Advent Calendar:

1. Rus in Urbis (
2. The Urban Gardener (
3: Urban Wild Plants (
4: Spook (of course): the Sock's adorable if mischievous kitten
5: Another pussycat: this time Pushkin from Victoria's Backyard
6: The Inadvertent Gardener (
7: The Artists Garden (
8: One of the many Chilean guavas to turn up at Mark Diacono's rather gorgeous Otter Farm (
9: Look closely and you'll see VP of Veg Plotting fame
10: Ryan's Garden (
11: A Digestive biscuit: its merits as the perfect dunker are discussed at length during Encounters with Remarkable Biscuits.
12: The Fat Rascal, one of this year's prizewinners at the Emsworth Village Show (
13: I wanted the name of the blogger for this one: it was of course the inimitable Arabella Sock (
14: This competition taught me that garden bloggers have a lot of cats, but also a lot of amphibians: this one is Nina the Lizard from Plants are the Strangest People. I appear to be the only garden blogger to admit to having a dog.
15: In the Toad's Garden (
16: The Garden Monkey (
17: Ros Badger (
18: The Mini-White Cucumber, star of many an unaccountably violent film at Cleve West's blog Tilth and Tillage
19: The Inelegant Gardener (
20: Tricky, this one: it's the Nasturtium from Esther's original blog Esther in the Garden.
21: The greenhouse is called Wendy, she lives at Silvertreedaze, but she is of course owned by the wonderful Nigel Colborn.
22: The Patient Gardener (
23: The multi-award-winning Blogging at Blackpitts (
24: The delectable but not altogether horticultural Sabrina Duncan International, star of this year's Malvern Spring Show and the first woman/man ever to deprive James Alexander Sinclair of the power of speech. Appeared first on the Sea of Immeasurable Gravy, I believe.

That really is it now. If you could email your answers to sally[dot]nex[at]btinternet[dot]com I can get rid of the parcel currently cluttering up my desk. And if you don't do so by next weekend (Jan 7-8) I shall donate it to the Constant Collection of Horticultural Yummy Things.

Happy New Year everyone!

STOP PRESS: We have a winner!

VP, who must have been sitting poised and waiting over a hot keyboard as I typed the above this morning, was first off the block with the correct answers.

They are: Dan Pearson, Spirit - his new book, which was the prize and will be winging its way over to Chippenham shortly. The plant genus was Viburnum.

Well done VP! And commiserations to anyone else who also sent in their answers or was on the point of doing so. You'll have another chance next year if I can muster the energy to do it again - with a bit of luck and some technical advice, it will hopefully be a bit better, too!
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