Monday, November 29, 2010

Garden words: Cooks and gardeners

'Monsieur Milbert has the disposition and the unmistakeable uniform of any French gardener. He is invariably clad in tall rubber boots, indigo blue worker's pants bought down at the market in the stall next to the cheese woman, a ragged scarf tied about his neck, and a hand-rolled cigarette clenched between his lips.

He talks in a low mumble, and the cigarette waves up and down, moving with his words like an expression on his face. He works alone, accompanied occasionally by Madame's dog, ratty little Puce, who jingles behind him with a tiny bell tied around her neck.

He is grumpy and coarse and all the things I was warned about. He takes his contest with nature very seriously and finds no comfort in its unpredictable forces. Like most gardeners, he never vacations. In winter when all is quiet and still, he would much rather spend his time fretting - about the fruit trees budding, about the relentless spring frosts that may or may not come, about the sun and the moon.

Gardeners, I discovered, are tough: content to be grim.

- from The Cook and the Gardener, by Amanda Hesser, the story of an American cook in a French garden, currently keeping me amused and inspired while the snow lies thick upon the ground.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Friday photo

It has been snowing. In November.

Not much, especially if you're reading this in Scotland or Northumbria - but enough to make footprints in the road and spangle the cobwebs in the hedgerows with suspended spray.

This is continuing for the next ten days, so they say: and it's the first time since 1993 it's snowed this early. At this rate we will lose all concept of what a 'normal' winter might be: can you remember the last one?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home

Has anyone else had ladybirds setting up home in odd corners this autumn?

We've had a veritable plague. They started appearing early last month, when I took this photo: they were crawling around on the windows, wandering over ceilings, popping up in cupboards. I was initially delighted as I thought, aaahh, dear little ladybirds, looking for somewhere to stay for the winter.

Actually I had no idea they hibernated: but yes, apparently they like all sorts of different hibernating spots. And spots is the word: the number of spots on a ladybird's back determines where, and if, it will hibernate.

Seven-spots (the most common type) migrate; others mostly hibernate in hollow plant stems: but tree trunks, bushes and fence posts are other favoured spots. It's mainly two-spots which seek out our houses. And they all hibernate in big groups - it makes finding a mate easier in spring. If all goes well they can live two to three years, apparently. That's as long as our last pet hamster.

Sadly, though, there isn't a two-spot to be seen in my little cluster of snoozy ladybirds. That's because these are not our native ladybirds but the harlequins, the grey squirrels of the ladybird world. They're from America, but they're not nice cultured friendly amusing Americans: they're very large, very successful and very competitive Americans. In fact they have a simple strategy in elbowing out our native ladybirds, which tend not to like to make too much of a fuss (am I overdoing the anthropomorphism here?): they simply eat them out of house, home and aphid colonies.

This leaves me with a dilemma. Obviously the reason we gardeners like ladybirds is because they eat aphids - and a ladybird with a monster appetite sounds like a serious asset to a harassed vegetable gardener. But at what cost?

I am recording my little colony on the UK-wide Harlequin Ladybird Survey ( which is tracking the spread of this possibly-not-entirely-unwelcome alien across the country. We are definitely on the fringes of its spread - but it's definitely here and in some numbers.

But what do I do now? Kick this lot out of the corner of my dining room? Or live and let live? (this last does not apply to our local aphid colony next year, of course....)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Grand Tour #5: The Terraced Bit

Last but not least: the closest we get to a front garden. There is a bit to the right of the drive which is almost an afterthought: it's the sixty feet or so that occupies the gap between the drive and the garage. But it's actually the most formal of all the gardens: making its way down the hill by means of a series of rather lovely terraces, held in place by retaining walls, and - amazingly for this garden - more or less flat and straight.

This has given me delusions of grandeur. I have nowhere else in the garden where I can garden formally, and I have a bit of a soft spot for clipped box hedging. However I also need a cutting garden: so I am combining the two into....

The Parterre Garden

You can see the terracing better looking back up towards the house...

Imagine, if you will, a square (or maybe a rectangle) of box in the centre of each terrace, perhaps a curlicue or a squiggle, or an abstract pattern in the style of Tom Stuart-Smith at Broughton. I could even go for the raised look: they had some fine examples at Hatfield House on that Alan Titchmarsh programme the other week.

(Incidentally, they got their parterres and their knots hopelessly entangled in that programme. Repeat after me: parterre hedges have flat tops and a uniform height, knot garden hedges weave over and under each other. They had both on that programme, but Mr Titchmarsh went on and on about the parterres at Hatfield being knot gardens, and then they had a beautiful knot garden which he referred to as a parterre. Was I the only one shouting at my telly?)

Anyway. The point is, I shall fill the gaps in between with dozens and dozens of annual flowers for cutting: cosmos, love-in-a-mist, tulips, anthemis, sweetpeas, cornflowers, Ammi majus, some fennel and stocks and larkspur and.... you get the idea.

The log store, on the top terrace, is... well... less than edifying, and extremely overgrown. I may be commissioning my carpenter husband to do something deliciously gorgeous there instead. It has also, as you can see, been used as a compost heap by the previous lot of people, who kindly left their monster pile of garden rubbish for us to make use of - though I'm going to have to do a lot of shifting around into proper compost bins first.

There is also, according to the plans, a well under that compost heap. We await the alarmed cry and distant splash which will tell us it hasn't, after all, been capped off.

The plant life is little more than overgrown shrubs: some are quite nice. This cotoneaster is in very full berry...

...and there's a fine cotinus at the other end. Both, however, aren't quite nice enough to out-compete the parterres. Though the cotinus may find a new home somewhere: I do like them. Something to do with that chocolatey shade of purple.

And the inevitable rose. This one is fighting it out with a rampant clematis in the corner: so far it's survived against all the odds, so I have a certain admiration for such gritty determination. And besides, it's very pretty even in November. It stays. For now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Grand Tour #4: The Rocky Bit

Now, come out of the back garden for a minute and walk round to the front of the house. You will see that between the house and the road, there is.... I'm sorry... I'm going to have to say it....... a.....


I hate rockeries. No - I really hate rockeries. They're full of piddly little plants which are lovely when self-seeded naturally into rocky outcrops in the Pyrenées or even, just, growing out of cracks in garden walls (I also have a garden wall in this section with a very fetching little thingy which I will entirely forgive for being there as it's where it's meant to be).

But when people start building great towering mounds of rocks and stuff them with little thingies which wouldn't normally grow in anything like that combination just to show them off in an anorak-ish sort of 'look what I've got!' way they are guilty not only of being 70s throwbacks in the worst possible sense but also of being insufferably smug, insensitive and - worst of all - unappreciative of what are in fact very beautiful little plants. I don't know why rockeries should be blamed for their owners' shortcomings, but there we are.

And besides, they're a bugger to weed.

There is a flimsy excuse for the existence of this particular rockery: it kind of holds back the lane which would otherwise tip rather disastrously onto our front door. There is a low wall at the front, and a high-up low wall at the back, in between which are lots of rocks and a few rather sorry-looking plants. So the Five Year Plan for this bit is to sweep rocks and such-like away to make way for....

The Herb Garden

I am being a little bit unfair as there are redeeming features. This is the far end (by the drive) and just the other side of that wall and the scrubby-looking shrubs there's a high-up sort of little lawn. It makes a very pretty spot: I can't be bothered to mow it (it's up steps, for goodness' sake) but it's a great excuse to plant some chamomile. I once had a chamomile lawn in my first-ever garden, a tiny town garden in Chiswick: it was about four feet by two feet but the scent as I walked on it has haunted me ever since.

And the steps themselves are rather nice: currently housing the poor dislocated plants hoicked out of my previous garden, dumped unceremoniously into containers and now hanging around aimlessly while I get around to finding somewhere to plant them.

I'm thinking lavender, trailing rosemary, and some interesting varieties of mint (in containers, of course, but possibly sunk into the ground either side).

This is an even longer and thinner bit of the garden than usual: about 60ft long, I reckon, by about 10ft from front to back. This is the bit to the right of the steps: no lawn, chamomile or otherwise here yet, but in the interests of symmetry I think all those blimmin' rocks may well have to make way for one. I could make it a creeping thyme one (Thymus serpyllum) just to ring the changes... though that might be overegging it. I am after all trying to restrain my usual instinct to cram in as many different varieties of plant as possible, in favour of something that looks a bit more, well, nice.

Actually it's not a very sensible place to have a herb garden, or not at the moment, anyway. That's because only the front edge, the bit by the house, actually gets any sun. I suspect however that these are the culprits.

Three of them. Honestly: whoever created this garden was almost certainly in the pay of those people who put together those 70s revival programmes on the telly. I suspect this trio of troglodytes were put in as dwarf conifers which, as they tend to do, just carried on growing after reaching their stated 5ft in 10 years. The two on either side are about 40ft high, the one in the middle about 30ft high. Between them they remove not only the light from my would-be herb garden but also most of the light from the house. They are, you will not be surprised to hear, going the way of the rocks.

Just one slightly tricky bit: this is a kind of extra bit of garden which joins the herb garden to the pot-pourri garden (cor get me, you wouldn't believe it was all an overgrown mass of shrubs and weeds scrapping it out at the moment, would you?)

I have no idea what to put in here. It's on the shady side, so my collection of scented-leaved pelargoniums aren't going to like it at all. My instinct is to put something in that's scented but also has uses for cooking, cosmetics or medicine - so bridging the divide between the two. All suggestions very welcome.

(that's a very spectacular Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Blue Spire' on the right, by the way, looking fetchingly ghostly at the moment now it's lost its powder-blue flowers).

Other redeeming qualities here:

Anyone know what kind of cotoneaster this is? Pretty sure it's a cotoneaster as it grows just like one - but look at those jewel-like purple berries. Just lovely.

A somewhat faded but pretty hydrangea (of the non-mophead variety: call me a culture snob but I do like my hydrangeas lacecap)

... and red valerian, self-seeded prettily around in the walls.

Oh yes, and this is that little thingy I was talking about; covered in tiny lilac flowers when we arrived and of course entirely un-gardened. Which is just as alpines should be.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Grand Tour #3: The Shady Bit

Turn your back to the house once again, and look to your left: this is the side of the garden that lies in the lee of a steeply-sloping bank, topped with a hedge, the lane meandering by on the other side a good ten feet or so above head height. The 'lawn' stretches back from here, but in front is a little seating area: no good for chilly autumn or spring, when you require the full force of the sun, but wonderful in summer, I suspect, where the shade will be a welcome respite from all those 40°-plus temperatures we're supposed to be getting in a few years' time.

I introduce you to....

The Pot-Pourri Garden

It's not quite in full shade: the bit that wraps around to the garden path, to the right in this picture, actually gets sun for most of the day. It is for this reason that I've decided this should be the place for another long-held hankering of mine: a garden where all the plants can be used for pot-pourri. This idea may be fairly heftily modified in the coming months: it's quite likely, for example, that apothecary's rose (Rosa gallica var officinalis), a base ingredient for pot-pourri and one of my all-time favourite roses for its sumptuous, unforgettable scent, will not like my chalky soil here. But in the best gardening traditions I shall try, and probably err, until I get it right. At worst, I should end up with rather a nice scented garden: even nicer on those summer evenings.

For now, however, it is a sea of neglect: there has obviously at some stage in its dim and distant past been some love and attention, as there are some rather gorgeous things here such as a massive and beautiful clump of bronze rodgersia. But mostly, it's just a sea of cranesbill: and not even interesting cranesbill but the rampant wild form, which although pretty is a little tedious in these quantities.

There are other self-seeding lovelies, though, like this Meconopsis cambrica: a slender, delicate, tissue-paper-thin poppy of just the perfect shade of yellow which I have always struggled to grow elsewhere, yet here is growing itself. Perfect.

And astrantias are clearly happy too: it's just the common-or-garden kind rather than one of the more vividly-coloured selections, but nonetheless lovely for that.

And this rather handsome yellow-leaved shrub is glowing in the gloom: but I have no idea what it is. It's 4-5ft tall and hasn't done anything other than this, so far. I do like those deep purple stems, though. It is ringing a bell, I know I've seen it before somewhere and I probably ought to know its identity - but my poor overloaded mind is so far drawing a blank. Any ideas, anyone?

At the back is a fine variegated holly - it's right next to the Ginkgo I mentioned in a previous rambling, and the contrast between the Ginkgo's yellow autumn foliage and the yellow-and-green variegation of the holly is inspired. And it looks like we'll have holly berries for Christmas for the first time ever this year.

But what of the bank? I hear you say. There must, surely, be a bank?

Ah yes, but it is a gentle one: horribly overgrown and scrubby, but very sheltered and rather nook-like. I am seeing daphnes, violets, wintersweet and other lovely things tumbling over each other on the way down.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Grand Tour #2: The Sunny Bit

Now for the one bit of my garden that is undeniably Very Sunny Indeed. It is on the south-facing side, there are, for once, no trees shading it, no house in the way, no high banks blocking out the sun. It isn't even concreted over. For this reason it is, the garden plan in my head dictates:

The Tropical Garden

(you are allowed to laugh)

Turn your back to the house, look a little over to your right, and you will see to one side of the path (the sunny side, natch) a flat bit. This is remarkable in itself as it is the only flat bit in the whole garden (apart from a concreted-over bit behind it, just visible to the left of the picture, which is where my garden office is going to go so that I can look out over this bit of the garden whenever I tire of my computer screen, which will be often).

It measures around 25ft x 40ft: not enormous, but quite big enough to house a selection of exotic and exotic-looking plants. I have for a long time nursed a secret hankering for a tropical edibles garden and this is going to be it.

At the moment my tropical edibles collection includes a big (and splitting) pot of yacon and a fig tree. Not very impressive, really. I hope to add ginger (Zingiber, proper ginger, not Hedychium - although I have two of those too which will no doubt go in there somewhere), some taro roots (Colocasia esculenta to you botanical types), edible passion fruits, kiwi vines, some acocha and a few bananas just for fun. The idea is that it will eventually be the kind of jungly mass of shoots, leaves and, no doubt, eats to pluck romantically from the vine as you waft through its sunshiny shade.

But all that is in the future: here, unfortunately, is it in its current unadorned state.

There is - of course! this is my garden! - a bank. A particularly steep, in fact nearly vertical bank at that. However: ever one to pluck opportunity from the teeth of a bloody ridiculous situation, I am getting quietly quite excited about this particular bank. I see vertical planting a go-go: beans tumbling down from soil pockets near the top, dangling their purple pods among clambering vines of kiwi, passion fruit and acocha.... now all I have to figure out is how to a) support the ones I'm not actually going to plant into the bank, and b) get the bank's current occupants - mainly stinging nettles and harts-tongue ferns - under control.

The emergency pond lives here, right at the front bit where it curves round to the house. I call it the emergency pond as Mango, who you can just about see under those iris leaves, only just survived the house move: poor old Peanut floated to the top of the rather inadequate fishtank they were living in while we got around to digging holes for ponds (not, admittedly, top of our to-do list on the day after the removal men left). After that and with the anguished wailing of small children echoing in our ears, the fishpond was in within two hours. And very nice it looks: I'm hoping the taro will drape rather elegantly over the edge of it in times to come.

There is a nod at planting: a slightly dislocated herb garden of mint, lavender, rosemary and sage all looking very healthy, if a little without context.

And a splash of colour from bedding. Flowering! In November!

The real splash of colour at the moment, though, is from this viburnum: I'm thinking x bodnantense 'Dawn' as it has the most incredible burnished bronze-purple autumn foliage.

And last but not least: some absolutely giant sunflowers. They must be (and I am not boasting here as I had nothing to do with growing them) 12ft tall. It bodes well for the fertility of the soil that they can pull this off in supposedly thin chalk: in fact I think sunflowers, being edible in both seed and seedling stages, definitely qualify for the tropical look.

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