Friday, April 30, 2010

Garden bloggers' Q & A

I'm a bit of a sucker for those quiz things where people have to answer the same set of questions and thus reveal a lot about themselves you wouldn't otherwise have found out. So how could I resist when Su Harris, who lives in Suffolk and whose new but already rather fine blog can be found here, said she'd picked me for a shiny new pair of awards: the Beautiful Blogger Award and the One Lovely Blog Award.

Thanks Su, especially for the chance to indulge myself shamelessly. The idea is you list seven random things about yourself: since it's random, I think it can be pretty much anything, but I'm never any good at thinking up interesting things so I hope I'm not breaking the rules by picking seven questions from the Guardian's Q&A in the Saturday magazine (not, you'll be glad to hear, the one about sex).

Which living person do you most admire, and why?
Beth Chatto, for continuing feisty and undeterred ploughing her own furrow and letting her own curiosity and energy lead her instead of borrowing other people's ideas.

What has been your most embarrassing moment?
I once settled myself down on the loo in front of a bathroom window which happened to have no curtains on it (we'd only just moved in): a moment later it was brought to my attention that there was a large, loud and boisterous bonfire night party going on in the garden directly facing our house.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My nose is exceedingly long and pointed.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
I eat crunchy peanut butter from the jar with a teaspoon when nobody's looking.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
A large two-acre field of sandy loam with a spectacular view, right outside my back door.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Actually, absolutely, stunning and lovely.

What's the closest you've come to death?
I once travelled at speed up the side of a very high mountain in the Caucasus near Chechnya in a clapped-out Skoda with two Russians swigging neat vodka out of a two-litre bottle. When the driver got out at the top (the bottle by now empty) he could no longer stand. To this day I have no idea how we didn't go over one of the precipitously steep drops at the side of the crumbling road.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That this too shall pass.

Now all I have to do is to nominate my own bloggers to receive the award: brace yourselves for some random revelations from:

Victoria at Victoria's Back Yard
Claire at Plantpassion
The Patient Gardener
The lovely and inimitable Esther

Feel free to either post more random things than the not-entirely-random selection above or answer the same questions if you want. And if anyone else wants to join in be my guest!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Moving matters #5: Of philistines

We are still trying to sell our house.

Apart from a little flurry where we briefly thought someone had bought it, we have watched noses being turned up at the rate of about two a week.

This is because - and I am about to launch on a rant of Colbornian proportions (if not style) here - people are philistines.

As I have mentioned before, my garden is looking a bit spesh at the moment. Tulips a go-go, forget-me-nots smiling at the sunshine, grass a-greening and blossom sprinkling the trees. It doesn't get much more beautiful than this, and it's a great improvement on our early days of house-selling when we were trying to convince everyone that our expanse of humps huddled over chilly bare soil would eventually look really spectacular. Honest, guv.

Well, now it does look spectacular. And you know what happened the other day? This nice couple came round, made appreciative noises about the house and its proximity to a good primary school, then walked into the garden.

They traversed the tulips, skirted the wendyhouse, glanced at the industrious plant-production going on in greenhouse and shed and peered at the pond.

Then they returned to the bit where you can look over the fence into next-door's garden. Now, I adore my next-door-neighbours who are the friendliest and most cheerful family you could ever wish to live cheek-by-jowl with. But they wouldn't mind me saying their garden is basically a 200-foot long football pitch.

"Ah," said our erstwhile buyers. "Now that's the sort of garden we'd be looking for."


What IS IT with people? WHY can't they show even the teensiest smidgen of imagination? Let alone creativity? And as for connection with the soil... clearly disappeared under a coating of Dulux-painted plasterboard decades ago.

I'm not asking for an appreciation society for my garden: just some sign that it is a good thing to have outside space which is cared for and used with an eye for beauty and enjoyment of nature.

So many of the miserable, limited-horizon people coming through our door seem to expect a takeaway garden. One you can buy off the shelf, plonk behind the back door to fill up that intimidating place called Outside so it looks more or less "done" and then forget about it.

Never mind that it is a living thing with the irritating habit of growing. In fact flowers are a bit of a pain, aren't they? They come, and then they go, and then you have to clean up after them.

Suburbia is taking over the world. And I don't mean that in a nice way.

No wonder people are selling off their back gardens hand over fist so they can be built on. It's only just occurred to me, after years of making other excuses (population density, housing crisis, yadayadayada) that it's actually because they don't, in fact, want a back garden. If you build on land it's a convenient way of stopping all those annoying growing things appearing, isn't it? Hey - get this. You don't even have to mow it. Low maintenance or what?

No wonder new-builds are so popular with their itty-squitty handkerchief-sized gardens. No wonder half my writing is about how to do gardening without a garden. And no wonder people look at me as if I'm mad when I say one of the reasons I want to move away from my 200ft x 30ft garden is because I haven't got enough outside space.

I have reached three conclusions from this bruising and to be honest profoundly depressing process.

1) we're going to have a bloody tough job selling our house.
2) I live too close to London.
3) I like gardeners more than any other people on the planet.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chelsea sneak preview

Hot off the press, exclusive, never-before-seen.... the plants which will feature this year at Chelsea.

Well, all right, it's not giving much away. Of course at this time of year nothing's in flower as there's a month to go before they'll reach their peak of perfection. But it was really wonderful to see them all there in one of Crocus's six polytunnels' worth of Chelsea gardens, just waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

This was all because Crocus opened up its nursery today for one of their open days - they're held three times a year, and they're a bun fight. Hundreds of people descend on the nursery to snap up loads of bargains and, it being Crocus, some wonderfully well-grown plants.

I must here declare an interest, of course, because I do work for Crocus, though on the kitchen gardening side so I was there just to have a good nose around like everyone else.

Crocus wrote the book on supplying plants to Chelsea, and has to some extent cornered the market: they're doing the plants for Tom Stuart-Smith's garden (sure to be utterly awe-inspiring) and Andy Sturgeon's too: talk about working for two exacting taskmasters. There may be others, too (though that's a state secret. Well, they're not telling me, anyway.)

As well as the polytunnels they've got what looks like several acres of plants outside, too. So... what can I reveal?

Well, not a lot. But Onopordums (those enormous great big Scotch thistles) look like they could be in for a starring role:

...and outside there were a lot of very dreamy phloxes...

I'm not entirely sure they should have been in flower, but here's a close-up anyway.

Pretty, aren't they?

And here's another entirely random shot of some gorgeous big cuddly box balls all rootballed up and ready to go.

As usual, I found all those serried ranks of mouthwatering plants impossible to resist, though I did try to be restrained and sensible. So I came home laden with:

3 Monarda 'Beauty of Cobham'
3 Anchusa 'Loddon Royalist'
3 Agapanthus roots
1 Molinia caerulea 'Transparent'
1 Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'
1 Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'

Those last three because I've always felt that one Stipa gigantea - albeit large and well established - and one Anemanthele lessoniana - ditto - was less than a full quotient of grasses, so my garden has always required more. That should do it.

I highly recommend Crocus's open days: brilliant for a bargain and for a bit of snooping around (in the nicest possible way!) The next one will require you to sharpen your elbows before attending though - it's the Chelsea sell-off on June 6th.

Wonder how much they'll want for one of those onopordums...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Good tulip, bad tulip

Right, that's quite enough cheerfulness, time to start complaining again.

My tulips are lovely, and I feel a little mealy-mouthed saying anything but delighted things about them, but they are not as they should be.

As usual I popped a slew of extra tulips in last autumn to back up what might or might not have survived the winter: I have pretty good tulip-overwintering soil, being sandy and free-draining, but you never can tell.

However the tulips I put in were not, you might say, the tulips they purport to be.

For example:

Tulipa 'Apeldoorn'

Good tulip:

Bad tulip:

Tulipa 'White Triumphator'

Good tulip:

(with thanks to Crocus for the pic)

Bad tulip:

And even worse tulip:

Tulipa 'West Point'

Good tulip:

(Crocus again)

Bad tulip:

The 'Queen of Night' are looking like they ought to at the moment, but there is an ominous streaking to my 'Orange Cassini' buds. And the 'Ballerina' and 'Spring Green' aren't open yet so I shall be interested to see what we end up with there.

It's not that I'm complaining exactly: I still have a spectacular display of rather lovely tulips (except the split 'Triumphator' - I really do detest those). But they ain't what I ordered.

To their credit the bulb company have apologised profusely and I shall be enjoying a free supply of 450 tulip bulbs this autumn. But I do have to wonder what happened.

Did they think most people wouldn't know their 'West Point' from their 'President Kennedy' and don't care anyway ('it's yellow, innit?')

Or is there some wierd virus mutation thing going on here? Is the purity of tulip bulbs becoming muddied by the endless hybridising and the multiple-million bulb turnovers of the big Dutch companies?

Answers on a postcard, please...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's not often I like my garden but... I do.

The sun is shining, the sky is clear and blue and aeroplane-free (thank you, oh thank you Icelandic volcano) and my tulips are out and singing to the world. I was clipping my rosemary hedges when I glanced up and saw this. And I grinned, rather foolishly, but entirely happily.

This, I do believe, is what it's all for. What more can a girl ask?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A little update

You may, or no doubt may not remember that I went shopping in January and cleared out the entire stock of past-sellby-date bulbs at my local garden centre.

So I thought it's high time I let you know how they all performed. And besides it's a good excuse to post some pretty spring flower photos.

Pot 1: Chionodoxa luciliae followed by Oxalis adenophylla

No sign of the Oxalis yet but I'm sure they'll make their presence felt shortly.

Pot 2: Puschkinia scilloides libanotica and Narcissus lobularis

Happily overlapping, and I have lost my heart to N. lobularis: such utterly heartbreaking delicacy.

Pot 3: Chionodoxa again, mixed colours this time, followed by Anemone blanda

The first colour mix I've ever actually liked!

Pot 4: Crocus chrysanthus var. fuscotinctus followed by Scilla siberica with a final flourish from mixed Ixia

The crocus flowered through March: wonderful they were too, and the Scilla were just budding up as they faded. What a combination, and I've got the Ixia to look forward to still.

And pot 5: Anemone coronaria 'St Brigid' possibly but not probably overlapping with Tulipa 'Rococo'

No overlapping going on just yet, but I'm so excited about these. And who could fail to be with such intriguingly wierd buds unfurling before your eyes.

By way of conclusion: they've all flowered at the end of the stated flowering times (i.e. if it said on the label "Flowers from Feb-April" they started in April) - but they've all, amazingly, flowered.

This is so what I'm going to do next year as well. I do love a good bargain!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Gardening on air #4: Of Austen and arcadia

Did you know the 18th century landscape designer Humphry Repton turns up in Jane Austen's novel, Mansfield Park?

No, I didn't either: but a rather wonderful programme about him in the series 'Escape to the Country', about people who make the transition from city to countryside, had me scurrying to my dog-eared edition of Ms Austen's book to check. It's true - it's the bit in chapter 6 where they're talking about Sotherton Hall:

"It wants improvement, ma'am, beyond anything. I never saw a place that wanted so much improvement in my life; and it is so forlorn that I do not know what can be done with it."

"No wonder that Mr. Rushworth should think so at present," said Mrs. Grant to Mrs. Norris, with a smile; "but depend upon it, Sotherton will have every improvement in time which his heart can desire."

"I must try to do something with it," said Mr. Rushworth, "but I do not know what. I hope I shall have some good friend to help me."

"Your best friend upon such an occasion," said Miss Bertram calmly, "would be Mr. Repton, I imagine."

"That is what I was thinking of. As he has done so well by Smith, I think I had better have him at once. His terms are five guineas a day."

The first programme in the series was all about Mr Repton and his five-guinea-a-day designs. It's presented by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, who I have until now chiefly associated with wafting around Chelsea in very large cuffs, but clearly I've been doing him an injustice.

Humphry Repton was the one responsible for places like Tatton Park, Longleat Park, Woburn and Kenwood House. He was the one after Capability: Llewelyn-Bowen describes him as the 'feminine' to Capability Brown's 'masculine'. (He also describes him, with I hope a deliberately tongue-in-cheek irony, as 'a makeover artist'). And in a very real sense he took up the reins from Brown, beginning his landscaping career at a time when Capability Brown bestrode the landscape and indeed was largely shaping it.

Repton was all serpentine paths, terraces, balustrades and topiary, often plonking them right in the middle of Capability landscapes in an expensive 18th-century exercise in nose-thumbing. He didn't do what Capability did and sweep away any villages and pesky peasants who got in the way of the grand vision: though what Repton did wasn't much better, as he framed them as part of his presentation of a kind of bucolic Arcadia to be viewed from the terraces of the big house.

The main bit about Repton which stuck in my memory from garden history lessons is also mentioned here: he drew his gardens in beautifully-painted watercolours in red books which he then gave to his clients: the early precursor to a Vectorworks printout, perhaps.

You can listen to this edition of Escape to the Country until next Sunday by the miracle of Listen Again: it's here.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Plant envy

I turned up at a client's garden for the first time in a little while the other day to find this.

Isn't it beautiful? It is, of course, the dog's tooth violet, Erythronium dens-canis, and I am spitting mad.

The reason I'm so bloody furious is that I can't grow the damn thing. Never have been able to. I must have wasted twenty quid over the years on buying its funny-looking bulbs and though I have planted them by the book - partial shade, moist but well-drained, lots of leafmould - they stubbornly refuse to do their stuff. Yet here they were: a little clump, nestling among the spring bulbs on the rockery. And she hadn't even really done much other than plonk them in there. When told of my incredulity at the ease with which they sprang up she just said, "Really? I've never had any trouble."

Why do gardeners always say that?

Dog's tooth violets are not the only thing I can't grow. There's quite a long list, actually.
  • snowdrops (going to try the elwesii types at some point though -you never know)
  • chillies (this year's failed to germinate, again)
  • trilliums (but I'm in good company)
  • heliotrope: how do you overwinter them?
  • Nicotiana sylvestris: germinate beautifully and then sulk, permanently
  • morning glory: ditto (going to try sowing in late May this year)
And if any of you lot say you've never had any trouble, I'll torture you till you tell me which plants you can't grow and then show you how brilliantly they're doing in my garden. So there.
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