Saturday, December 31, 2011

That was the year that was: 2011

As regular readers know, one of my freelance hats is as one half of the news team for the RHS journal The Garden. That means I spend an awful lot of my time trying to find out what's going on.

And this year it's been pretty busy one by gardening standards. So in the great tradition of New Year's Eve nostalgia: here's a look back at an eventful 2011.

It was a good year for...

Cleve West: there was no getting away from him. First his ridiculously good garden at Chelsea scooped Best in Show, and as if that wasn't enough the man goes and writes a book that gets shortlisted for awards and all sorts. One can only hope he develops a tiddlywinks fetish next year to give everyone else a look-in.

Giant veg: It all started with pot leeks the size of bollards at the Tatton Flower Show and went on to see records toppling left right and centre, both at the National Vegetable Show – home of the newly-crowned world's biggest swede (37.29kg) – and in back gardens: the world's heaviest spud, at 3.8kg, was grown this year by amateur gardener Peter Glazebrook in Nottinghamshire.

Disease: phytophthora (both lateralis, currently working its way through the nation's Lawson's cypress trees, and ramorum, now responsible for wiping out millions of Japanese larch across the West Country), citrus longhorn beetle, oak processionary moth: the list of imported invaders is lengthening almost as fast as their relentless march across the UK. Luckily Kew has built a whopping state-of-the-art quarantine centre to try and stop them getting in in the first place; and the RHS is also building a new scientific research centre at Wisley to try and figure out how to tackle them once they've arrived. The fight-back starts here.

Clumsy gardeners, who can now rest easy in the sure knowledge that they will never do anything worse than the American gardener who managed to drive a pair of secateurs through his eye socket and into his skull, and still survived to tell the tale.

It was a bad year for...

Weather forecasters, who must have given up on comparing anything to 'normal' conditions now as it's so long since we've had anything that can remotely be described as normal. This year it was a spring that was more like summer, followed by an autumn-like summer and a summer-like autumn, too. Confused? So are your plants.

The Queen who can't find herself a gardener. Possibly something to do with the fact that she lives in SW1A – one of the country's most expensive postcodes – yet is offering a salary that would barely pay the rent.

First-year British botany students, who no longer exist. The 2011 academic year began with not a single undergraduate course offered in the subject of 'botany'; these days it's labelled 'plant science' and more often offered as a specialism within a wider biological sciences degree. It's telling that Kew hasn't taken on a single British botany – or even 'plant science' - graduate in five years.

David Cameron – well, yes, for all sorts of reasons. But also for revealing that he equates gardeners with street cleaners in his estimation of the worth of what we do. Cue every pressure group in the industry bearing down on him in justifiable wrath. Serves him right.

Elks, at least the one who got drunk on fermenting apple windfalls and woke up next morning to find itself dangling from a tree with no idea how it got there. And no doubt the mother of all hangovers.

The Olympic Park appeared out of a vast stretch of wasteland somewhere in the east of London to become perhaps the most talked-about green space ever. Sarah Price did her stuff, as did James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett and Hillier Nurseries, which grew 2,000 of the legions of Olympic trees.

The Chelsea Flower Show got its very own spin-off as the Chelsea Fringe was conceived – can't wait to see what it comes up with on its debut.

Britain's 'finest landscape garden' rose from the ashes in probably the most talked-about restoration of the year: the shiny new Wrest Park comes complete with French parterre, rose garden and an Italian Garden. And it ain't over yet: the American Garden is unveiled in 2013.

And a new, if slightly dubious sport was born as gardeners male and female competed to grow the most unbecoming moustache, raising over £20,000 for Movember in the process. Slugs were involved. That's all you need to know.


Monty Don picked up his love affair with Gardeners' World again and stepped back into his battered Head Gardener boots; Alan Titchmarsh was back on our screens too with ITV's tentative foray into gardening programming, Love Your Garden; and the BBC's gardening team upped sticks and left for Bristol. 2012 will be the first time, I think in its history, that the BBC's green-fingered output hasn't come from Birmingham.

...and despatches:
Carol Klein's nursery in Devon closed its doors amid an unseemly row about trees and compost heaps.

The Blue Peter garden – and its capsule, not to be opened till 2029 – was grassed over after more than 30 years, ahead of a move to Salford that was meant to happen in time for the next series but has now been put on ice. We'll find out soon, I'd guess, whether the much-denied rumours that it's to be ditched altogether are true.

The recession killed off Stapeley Water Gardens in Cheshire, closing for good today, and put a huge question mark over the future of Trevarno in Cornwall which can't find a buyer. Staff find out in the next few weeks whether they've still got a job.

And Ventnor Botanic Garden is also awaiting its fate as the Isle of Wight County Council, bent on getting rid of its unwanted burden, decides which of two bidders will be taking it off their hands. Verdict in February.

And finally...
What's hot:
Forest gardening: and permaculture, and anything that involves growing food in among your other plants.
Foraging: getting food for free from all sorts of unlikely places, even the towpath of Regent's Canal. Though you can just stick to elderflowers and sloes if you want.

And what's not:
Peat: after many years of pontificating about the damage peat extraction was doing to the environment, the government finally committed, in a rather woolly way, to a voluntary deadline, whatever that is: 2020 sees peat-based composts disappear from garden centre shelves. We hope.

Meerkats. 'Nuff said.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Seen in our local woodlands: no idea what type, but they were around 10" across, the size of side plates

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Designing history

Princess Beatrice's garden at Carisbrooke Castle:
Edwardian? Mediaeval? Or 21st century?

I’ve been wondering a bit lately about all these historic gardens we’re restoring.

I spend a hefty proportion of my days writing about garden restoration projects. We seem to be in a restoration frenzy: in the last two or three years alone we’ve seen Wrest Park rise from the ashes, the Elizabethangarden at Kenilworth Castle recreated, the Crystal Grotto atPainshill Park rescued from oblivion and Chiswick Park overhauled to within an inch of its life.

And that’s not even counting Hidcote, the Liverpool Garden Festival site, the Seafront Gardensat Felixstowe and Myddleton House, EA Bowles’s pad in Enfield, Middlesex.

I can’t prove it, but I'd be willing to bet we've restored more historic gardens in the last four or five years than at any point in the last 50.

A good time, then, to take a step back and really think about what we’re doing here.

Note the many different words we use for the restoration of a garden: recreation, revitalisation, reconstruction.... When we take a neglected garden and return it to something people will pay to come and see (and after all, that’s – at least partly – what it’s all about) – what, exactly, are we doing?

Ancient and modern: grass plats and mulberry trees

In a rather timely sort of way, the Professional Gardeners’ Guild held its annual seminar on Historic Buildings Parks and Gardens earlier this month, during which they considered this a lot more coherently than I can. They looked at the choices you make when you decide to restore a garden: do you restore them to a historic plan, perhaps the original design you’ve discovered at the back of some dusty cupboard in the Big House?

Or do you come up with a new design – perhaps echoing the style of the original garden, or evoking a historical reference but with a modern twist?

As it happens, I’ve been to visit one of each this year.

Hestercombe near Taunton in Somerset is a faithful restoration of what was there originally: and who can blame them. They had one of the most historically important landscapes in the country on their hands, including an iconic Jekyll-Lutyens design. They had lots of maps, documents, drawings, plans: so what you see now is pretty much an exact replica of what was there when each of the various parts of the garden was in its heyday. Double rills, terraces, pergolas and bedding in fancy formal layouts. Very beautiful; very late Victorian; very faithful.

Hestercombe: a truly faithful restoration

There is always, however, something of the museum about these gardens. I love Hestercombe, don’t get me wrong: and there’s something wonderful about being able to taste living history like this, to experience life as it must have been in the 19th century (with added tea-shops).

But it is Victorian life preserved in aspic, and gardens are living, breathing things that above all change: perhaps the essence of the paradox that lies at the heart of garden restoration.

At the other extreme: when English Heritage decided they wanted to return what was essentially a small field within the walls of Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight back to its Edwardian incarnation as the privy garden used by Princess Beatrice, daughter of Queen Victoria, they decided against a restoration, in the classical sense. Instead, they brought in Chris Beardshaw to design what you might call an evocation of the original.

Berkheya purpurea - it just looks historic

It does use the layout you would have seen in the original early-20th century garden, but the planting is noticeably modern. It does ‘reflect the feel and spirit of the period’, as the blurb says: there's something about Berkheya purpurea that always looks like it's been around a long time.

But superb colour combinations such as Agastache 'Black Adder', Sedum telephium 'Purple Emperor' and Geranium wlassovianum had the exciting, vibrant feel of 21st-century planting. There were subtle references – a blue, red and gold colour scheme reflecting Princess Beatrice’s crest, for example – but it felt like a modern garden.

And that was odd, because it wasn’t. Actually I think this was further complicated by the fact that Princess Beatrice clearly had a penchant for the mediaeval: I suppose it was all those castle walls looming over her. So there are grass plats, and flowery meads, and spreading mulberry trees over seating areas. Very lovely, and a relaxing space to stroll around, but undeniably in the vaguely Mediaev-Eliza-Tudor mould. So not Edwardian at all, then.
Again – I don’t mean to give the impression I disliked the garden: actually, I loved it, especially the enclosed, intimate feeling. The big figs in planters didn’t work for me, leaving one side of the garden feeling rather unresolved, but that wasn’t really Chris’s fault as he was trying to avoid sending roots into the foundations of a 13th-century building they discovered while creating the garden. By such compromises are history-riddled projects beset.

Sublime planting... though perhaps not what Princess Beatrice
would have seen. But does that matter?

But I felt that as a garden, it wasn’t really sure what it was. A celebration of Edwardian style and elegance? A modern take on the mediaeval tradition? Or a homage to a lady who lived in the early 20th century but rather preferred the 12th? Perhaps all those things.

It’s clearly possible to capture the spirit, or the essence of a garden: Chris himself is a past master at it, and has successfully converted bare plots at Chelsea into slices of Boveridge House in Dorset, Hidcote, and next year Furzey Gardens in Hampshire.

But when you take that to the actual place – the location of the original garden – you end up with something akin to pastiche, or at best a mildly uncomfortable dissonance.

The PGG seminar concluded that design, and designers, have an important part to play in garden restoration. But Lord Cavendish - who has I think a better solution by commissioning Kim Wilkie, of Orpheus fame, to build him an unashamedly 21st century earthworks in the late 18th century grounds of Holker Hall (opening next spring) – made the point that gardens these days are used differently now to how they were in the past.

And, he added, perhaps saying the unsayable, ‘Some gardens will be lost. But gardens are and should be ephemeral.’

Which puts a whole new slant on the question: should we be restoring gardens at all?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tom Hoblyn at Chelsea

I got an email the other day pointing out, very politely, that 'minimalism meets the Villa d'Este' isn't an entirely accurate way to describe Tom Hoblyn's Chelsea garden for first-time sponsors Arthritis Research UK. In fact the word 'minimalist' – as used in the Chelsea press launch the other day – wasn't to be taken literally at all.

Well, that's a relief. My mind was quite boggled with the idea that anything associated with the gloriously baroque Villa d'Este could be anything but a car crash of monumental proportions.

So to redress the balance, so to speak, I thought I'd do a quick close-up on what we can expect from Tom's garden next year.

In Tom's words: 'I have long harboured an obsession for the Italian Renaissance gardens. The fascinating theory of controlling nature, the divine proportions and perfect symmetry, majestically portrayed against decadent architecture, truly captures my imagination.'

It couldn't be Italianate if it didn't have vast and extraordinary water features: the Villa d'Este, of course, is home to the Hundred Fountains (and around 499 other water features), while the Villa Lante – another inspiration behind this garden – has chains, rills and a Fountain of the Deluge which is just as impressive as it sounds.

So there are three water features here, described as 'spectacular', among formal Mediterranean planting: and that's all I'm telling you. Actually – that's all they're telling me. I think we'll have to wait a month or two before there are any more details than that – but it's a big improvement on the minimalist thing.

Tom is a familiar – if self-effacing – presence at Chelsea, with a gold and two silver-gilt medals to his name: I adored his sinuous redwood sculpture for Foreign and Colonial Investments in 2009, even though the judges only thought it worthy of a silver (it lives on – it was recreated in a client's Suffolk garden after the show).

He's well known for his affinity with nature: his own garden is, in his own words 'unkempt', and it's telling that in his description of it he talks more about the wildlife and wildflowers than he does about the biodynamic veg garden or the 40 trained fruit trees and 'a few flower beds around the house' – stuffed, of course, with bits of old Chelsea gardens.

In between Chelseas he's regenerating the Grade II* listed Hillersdon House, a 'gardenesque' 19th-century Devon estate, and restoring 44 acres at Great Westwood, the Georgian former hunting lodge of Edward and Mrs Simpson in Hertfordshire (there's an Italianate garden there, too). It's telling that as well as hanging out with the aristocracy, he's also involved in a community project at a Hindu temple in West Bengal. You can follow his progress on all the above at his shiny new blog for The Guardian.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Chelsea 2012: A sneak peek

Chris Beardshaw's Chelsea 2012 design recreates
Furzey Gardens in the New Forest
November is not, it must be said, a glamorous month. So it was a bit of welcome light relief to be reminded today at the launch of the RHS Chelsea FlowerShow 2012 that there is such a thing as May and flower shows and summer.

Next year's show looks like it's going to be a vintage edition: it's the 99th Chelsea, and they still haven't stopped coming up with new ways of shaking it all up a bit.

There are 18 full-sized show gardens, around 15 small gardens (though most have yet to be finalised), 107 exhibitors in the Great Pavilion, fencing, caravans, Formula One motorcars and a demilitarised zone.

So without further ado, here are the highlights for Chelsea 2012:

Show gardens:
The rollcall of designers for next year's Chelsea reads like a who's who of gardening.

Sarah Price, rarely out of the headlines these days what with her 1/2-mile long garden for the 2012 Olympics Park, is designing her first solo Main Avenue garden for the Daily Telegraph (she did a City Garden in 2007 which won a silver medal). Can't wait to see her planting which is unfailingly dreamy.

Joe Swift is another first-timer, and long overdue, too: his design for Homebase has frames of cedar running through the garden on an angle, giving a double-framed view along and diagonally across the garden, with Prunus serrula and Cornus mas emphasising natural woodland-style planting.

Korean designer Jihae Hwang – memorable for winning best Artisan Garden with an exquisitely beautiful outdoor lavatory this year – is graduating to full show garden with a recreation of the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea; and Jo Thompson's first full-sized show garden has an Airstream caravan called Doris and a hammock: the ultimate staycation, and I can't help thinking the place you'll probably find most gardening hacks hanging out on press day (there are rumours of a fridge full of icecream and beer inside).

Andy Sturgeon's design for show sponsors M&G - though I have to say this doesn't remotely do it justice
Returning champions Andy Sturgeon and Cleve West are slugging it out for the honours: Andy has an exquisite sculpture of copper rings winding its way 'like an energy wave' through and around a central sunken pool (there are cleft rocks and monolithic walls involved); and Cleve is going for topiary in a big way. 'It's as good a time as any to let my sponsors know I've never done a formal garden before,' he said, with questionable wisdom. But don't worry: it's promising to be vintage Cleve nonetheless, with abstract stone sculptures and lovely herbaceous planting to set off all that yew.

Chris Beardshaw is back recreating a Hampshire garden cultivated by adult learners, and there's another welcome return from Arne Maynard, known and revered for his wonderfully sensitive, natural planting style, at Chelsea for the first time in 12 years.

Tom Hoblyn's design: minimalism meets the Villa d'Este
Tom Hoblyn is planning a minimalist garden inspired by the Villa d'Este – which sounds like a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one – and Nigel Dunnett is moving from rain gardens to dry meadows in the Blue Water Garden. There's also a sky-scraping sculptural tower from Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins, who seem to have cornered the market in superhumanly tall structures at Chelsea.

I would say something about the small gardens if I could, but there's not much information out there at the moment: all I know is that there's what they're calling a 'large artisan garden' (oh please return to calling them courtyard gardens, I do hate that name) by Japanese master Ishihara Kazayuki, and it'll be a recreation of a garden in Nagasaki 50 years ago. That alone is worth the trip to Ranelagh.

Great Pavilion:

The headline news here is that Edulis, my all-time favourite unusual edibles nursery, is at last making its debut at Chelsea. Be prepared to be wowed. Aeonium lovers need look no further than the Trewidden exhibit: also first-timers and bringing their collection of tender succulents with them including several new home-bred varieties.

There will be fencing displays at Hillier Nurseries, who also get the prize for worst pun of the year with their exhibit title 'Duel and the Crown' (it's the Queen's Diamond Jubilee... geddit?) And here's a snippet for Chelsea trivia fans: did you know that Ranelagh Gardens was the venue for fencing tournaments right up until the Second World War?

Other things to look out for:
  • Fresh Gardens: It could only be a matter of time. Conceptual gardens have been stealing the show at Hampton Court for years; they dipped a toe (successfully, mostly) into Tatton under the 'Visionary Gardens' label and now Chelsea has taken the plunge and commissioned some of these most risky and challenging of gardens (and renamed the category, again).
  • Mind you, they've chosen a past master of the art in the unfailingly exciting and thought-provoking Tony Smith, whose 'Green with...' garden looks very odd (as all his do on plan) and is said to evoke the 'human emotions of envy and desire'. The other one we were told about, 'Places for People' by Noel Farrer, looked frankly safe; though I'll be ready to be surprised on the day.
  • Sir Harry Veitch: Victorian nurseryman extraordinaire, and the owner of a truly enviable beard, celebrated by Plant Heritage this year
  • Pot art: little plant pots are being painted even as I write by the great and the good in the world of gardening, to auction in aid of the RHS Campaign for School Gardening.
  • Topiary: there is more. Not just Cleve's, and I believe a bit in Arne Maynard's, but a huge topiary sculpture in the Great Pavilion celebrating the Monaco Grand Prix, in the shape – you guessed it – of a Formula One racing car.
Roll on May, that's all I can say. Can't wait.

Monday, November 21, 2011

101 uses (well, 10) for a garden knife

I do love my garden knife.

It's the one thing I wouldn't be without. It was probably the best freebie I've ever been given in all the years I've been a garden hack.

It looks exactly like the one in the picture. I can't even remember which particular press event it was: just that those nice people at Marshalls (and here's my chance - even if they have had to wait several years - to give them the mention they were no doubt after in exchange for the freebie) included one in a goody bag.

But I realised the other day that I very rarely actually use mine for proper gardening. I don't do much T-budding (for which you'd need a finer knife anyway); I find secateurs more useful for things like dead-heading; and I don't bother chipping seeds.
Gardening knives, I've discovered, aren't really for gardening at all. Oh no - they're much more useful than that, which is why I have mine in my pocket at all times. Here's what they are for:
  • cutting up little bits of string for tying in sweetpeas (and beans, and peas, and achocha)
  • hoicking those bits of hair and string and wool and stuff out of the brush on the vacuum cleaner
  • gouging dirt out from under your fingernails
  • acting as a stand-in screwdriver to undo the cross-head bolts on greenhouse staging
  • ditto to tighten up the arms of your glasses when they come loose
  • slitting open compost bags
  • cutting x-shaped holes through planting membranes and into the tops of grow bags
  • prising out mud from the treads of gardening boots
  • going armed against potential thugs on the Underground while convincing police you're just a batty middle-aged gardener
What do you use yours for?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Eucalyptus gunnii bark in the Australian garden at the Walled Gardens of Cannington, Bridgwater, Somerset

Thursday, November 03, 2011

La dolce vita

Well hello again!

I’ve been off on my travels. It’s not very often I get abroad – the last time was circa 2009 – but what with the offer of some free accommodation, plus the serendipitous coincidence of two inset days right after half-term (meaning normal double-your-money school holiday flight prices didn’t apply) saw us jetting off to Sicily for a week.

All mentions of plants while in the company of my family are greeted with howls of protest, so I’ve learned from long experience to keep my mouth shut and botanise while simultaneously dodging suicidal Italian drivers and negotiating the tortuous streets of Sicily’s towns, littered on both sides with badly-parked cars as Sicily appears not to have noticed that there are such things as car parks.

I even had to ‘visit’ Syracuse’s botanic gardens – painfully tempting glimpsed through ornate metal railings – while hammering around in an incomprehensible guided tour of the city on a road train. I can’t help feeling it wasn’t entirely accidental that it was dark by the time I had a chance to go back to look round it properly.

What with plant identification at 30mph (70mph on long journeys into the island’s mountainous interior, always in the shadow of the ever-smoking Etna) and in silence, it’s perhaps not surprising that just two plants came to symbolise Sicily’s semi-tropical lush vegetation (palms, bougainvillea, hibiscus and of course lemon trees were everywhere).

The first is the prickly pear cactus – Opuntia ficus-indica – which grew wild along the roadsides, bubbling up in great thickets taller than your head, tumbling over supermarket carparks and encroaching on the beach.

They were in season while we were there, every flat green paddle topped with fat bright red fruit, so we tried a few: you peel them (first cutting off the painfully prickle-filled end plate) to find succulent red flesh studded with black seeds. Apparently these seeds are edible, though I found they were hard as bullets so we painstakingly picked them out to end up with a red mush which tasted of watermelon, though not quite as sweet. Pleasant, but not that remarkable.

The second plant which will always remind me of Sicily is a conifer, much to my amazement since I usually associate them with utter boredom and mind-numbingly difficult plant idents. Nothing boring about this one: the branches were tipped with fans of upward-facing branches, the whole tall conical structure topped with diminishing fans on the main trunk which swayed in the wind. It was so graceful, so exquisitely architectural that it completely won me over.

They were everywhere: right outside the flat we were staying in, and on the other side of the road, and another one beyond that, soaring into the sky and marching across the landscape like elegant sentinels. Unfortunately I haven’t the foggiest idea what they might be.

So: here’s your starter for ten. Using the frankly rubbish pictures on this page (taken on my phone, since I forgot to take my camera on holiday - a seasoned traveller I am not) - can anyone help me identify my mystery conifer? And then tell me where I can get one so it can become the first conifer I have ever deliberately planted instead of chopping down?

A virtual prickly pear juice smoothie to the sender of the first correct answer.

Thank you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

October flowers

Well I seem to be late for everything this month. And so it is with the unmissable Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens, which for some time now I have been using as a way of stepping back and looking, properly at the garden and where it is in the year (instead of just seeing the usual tick-list of jobs that became urgent last week).

I blame a certain lethargy brought on by the impending frosts. And the recent demise of, which was my way of indulging in loads of photos without the guilt of having to inflict them on anyone unless they wanted to sit through them all.

So I'm afraid this month you'll have to look at all my photos, one by one: either that, or log off right now and go do something more improving instead.

Since it's undeniably autumn now - the swishing sound as I walk becoming less and less easy to ignore, or indeed wilfully deny - I'll start not with flowers but with berries, filling my garden gradually from the yellow buttons of Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' to hips and cotoneaster berries and the little jewel-like Tomato 'Hundreds and Thousands' tumbling over the tubs on my patio.

I'm not too keen on the cotoneaster, as it self-seeds everywhere, but at this time of year you can't help but like it.

There are always lots of wildlings in my garden - and several are having a second flush at the moment.

Some aren't strictly wildings but sort of naturalised garden plants: the Anemone x japonica 'Honorine Jobert' is going mad in the front garden and will have to be sorted out at some point. Not now though.

The hardy fuchsia is another one in its prime right now: hard to think I'm going to have to get rid of it this year (too big, too old, too shady).

In fact the fuchsias generally are looking pretty good right now.

Also in this part of the garden are - or rather were - the scented-leaf pelargoniums; though I spent part of today digging them up and tucking them away in the greenhouse ahead of the Big Freeze.

It's been a good year for the annuals: and a good thing too, as I'm still in my first season so stuck to seed-raised flowers to see me through while I waited to see what came up in my new garden.

The cosmos in particular have been fabulous: flowering madly since about the end of June and still going strong.

But there have been two annual stars which have really stolen the show. The first is my bronze fennel: a lovely foil for other plants while they have their summer spell in the spotlight, but now a fireworks display of golden yellow.

And equally tall and airy, the Nicotiana mutabilis are dancing through the border on their wiry stems of pink and white, charming, dainty and adorable.

So adorable have they been, in fact, that I'm going to follow some advice Chris Ireland-Jones gave me on my recent visit to Avon Bulbs and try to overwinter them in the greenhouse. He says if you can cut them back hard, pot them up and bring them in, they have a head start on the season next year. Twice this display will be quite, quite ravishing. Can't wait.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Not-quite-the-end of the month view: September

Well, heck, I'm only a week late for the End of Month View (hosted, some time ago now, by Helen, aka The Patient Gardener). And who can blame me for clinging onto September: it has been a remarkably warm and balmy one. And it's looking pretty dicey for October, so if it's all the same to you I'll linger for a while longer in the twilight zone between summer and autumn.

It's not, however, been an altogether sunny picture in my garden: particularly my front garden. You see we've had an amusing time this summer almost completely rebuilding our house.

A relatively straightforward project, to replace the blown cement render with lovely stone-house-friendly lime render, turned into something altogether more fundamental when we discovered that the cement render was actually holding the outer wall in place.

The whole process has involved large holes appearing here and there (and I mean large: we could stand up in the one in the end wall), the rebuilding of the entire end wall plus a chimney stack and the reinstatement of the top of the wall at the front, which turned out not to be there any more.

And most upsettingly for the garden, it also meant we've had scaffolding right round the house since around July. The builders were commendably sensitive and didn't plonk scaffolding poles onto prize plants: but there is lime on everything, and because I haven't been able to access the area the bit of progress I had been making has gone backwards.

So this winter's project (one of them: the fruit cage is also going in this winter, but that's another story) is to get this little lot back in order again.

First job is to remove the more rampant plants here. There's a self-sown cotoneaster bent on taking my stone wall down with it, and a large stump that needs to come out.

Also getting seriously out of control are some more welcome plants: a fine clump of small-flowered asters, a species I think though I haven't yet been able to identify them with any sort of confidence. There are masses of white Anemone japonica 'Honorine Jobert'; the snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) has galloped gaily over everything; and there's tons of self-seeded valerian in every nook and cranny, too.

Some of these I shall just move; the valerian will go (there's plenty elsewhere in the garden; I do love it, but not to the exclusion of everything else). And I'm afraid the Cerastium is just a bit too bedding for me; it's going.

There is a dilemma, in the shape of a large and stately hardy fuchsia in the middle of the whole thing. It's massive; it's in the wrong place; but it's a fine plant. I can't see I'll be able to move it without wrecking it wholesale; my preferred option at the moment is to take some cuttings and start again, with the statutory mourning period required for the sad but necessary passing of such beauties.

And replacing it all? Well: part of it is already assigned. I have my corner of scented geraniums, underplanted with blankets of Strawberry 'Baron von Solemacher'. I have an olive tree to replace the horrible cotoneaster in the corner, to arch gracefully and elegantly over the semi-oval of chamomile lawn which will replace the scraggy grass and even scraggier roses which inexplicably occupy the only flat bit. And the thyme collection dotted around another side is coming on nicely.

And once the other planting areas are cleared and as I want them, I have herbs dancing through my dreams: medicinal echinacea and stately angelica, prostrate rosemary dripping over the old stone wall and hummocks of sage ringed with dancing spheres of silvery-pink chive flowers.

I have a yen to grow mandragora root, liquorice and blood-red veined sorrel, fenugreek and cumin, capers and orach, mint (sunk in pots) of every shape, size and flavour, vervain for tea and sweet cicely for sweetening my rhubarb.

In fact I'm sure I'll run out of space long before I've run out of herbs I want to grow. At the moment, I'm just thinking how different what I see out my window looks in comparison to the vision I have in my head: but then gardens are the stuff that dreams are made on. And besides, the scaffolding came down this week. Time to get out the spade and turn those dreams into reality...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Of garden hoses and organisation

At the beginning of this year, I had the biggest rats-nest of garden hoses I have ever accumulated.

So enormous was it that the tap had disappeared beneath it. So ratty and nesty I couldn't figure out where the end of the hose I needed was, and even if I had been able to locate it, extracting it with any hope of actually watering something with it would have tied the knots still tighter.

This was partly an accident of history: our last garden required two hoses joined together, especially if we wanted to top up the pond at the other end (yes, I know, you're supposed to use rainwater: but this ignores the unavoidable fact that ponds only need topping up when water butts are empty).

And I also had an allotment: 70ft long, with another 70ft or so to go between the gate and the tap. This demanded the mother of all hoses: in fact so big was my allotment mega-hose it needed two hosereels to hold it all. Luckily, it being an allotment, a certain amount of shabby chic allowed, so I was able to leave it out most of the time.

Both ex garden hoses (disconnected from each other by now) plus the allotment hose were stacked hopefully by the garden tap behind the house on moving day. And that's where they stayed, completely baffling my attempts to organise them and as the record-breaking drought of April 2011 kicked in, reducing all my poor gasping patio plants to the occasional watering can full when I could spare them from dousing the greenhouse.

About the same time, an email dropped into my inbox from a nice man offering me a free hose reel to try out in the comfort of my own home, if I should be inclined to write about it in return.

Luckily, it didn't seem to put him off when I told him that if it didn't work, or isn't quite right, or I didn't like something, I reserved the right to say so. And within a week a very large package arrived on our doorstep: by this time it hadn't rained for about five weeks, so it wasn't a moment too soon.

The hosereel in question is the Hozelock Autoreel: a megalith of a hose reel if ever there was one, and I spent the tail end of that drought-ridden spring testing it to the limit. I tugged it from one end of the garden to the other, mercilessly dragging it to its 40m limit. I left it out for the puppies to chew; flapped the hinged wall bracket back and forth relentlessly; took it out and put it away again more times than I can remember.

I had a damn good try at breaking the autowind stop mechanism, too: this is like a spring catch which only works as you pull the hose out. So you pull the hose to a certain length, and when you let it go, it catches so the hose is held at (more or less) the length you've chosen. Pull it again, and the catch comes off, allowing the hose to spring back automatically to the start.

But though I verged on the irresponsible with the way I let the hose whack back to the catch, it hasn't broken yet. This is one tough customer: it needs to be, with the way I treat my garden gear, and I've been pleasantly surprised by what it will put up with. Besides, anything that puts itself away is a winner in my book.

Niggles: such a behemoth of a creature needs a Proper Bloke to fit it to the wall. I'm pretty handy with a drill and some screws when required, but even I had to come over all girly and get the hubster to do it.

He said something obscure about a template being needed to screw the back plate onto the wall straight: not entirely sure what he was on about, but then it probably means more to perfectionist carpenters than slapdash gardeners.

And you need two people to lock the hose in place if you don't want to use the catch mechanism described above. There is a locking switch on the main casing (see picture left), but you'd need someone to stand by the lock to turn it when you get to the point you want the hose to stay: if you let go the hose to run back and fix it with the lock, it gaily sprints along by your side, racing you back to the start as that auto-wind kicks in. Maybe I was missing something, but this was one of the few design features I couldn't see the point of.

I'm not too keen on the bright green thing it's got going on, either: why on earth does Hozelock have to choose such utterly garden-unfriendly, plasticky colours for its brand livery? Nobody, I can assure you, would choose the garden hose as a focal point, however wonderful it might be to use. Fortunately mine's tucked away nicely out of sight behind the house so that doesn't matter.

But these are small complaints: my shiny new hose has entirely revolutionised my watering life. I love that it's on a hinge, so you can pull it two ways: ideal for me, when the same hose has to be threaded along both directions of a narrow passageway.

The hose itself is as tough and beefy as the casing. It's satisfyingly heavy, so it doesn't kink and lies where you put it unlike most hoses, which have an annoying habit of flipping across your prize dahlias as you're watering.

Nor does it disappear back into the casing: a sturdy business-like ball (see second picture) strapped to the hosepipe just behind the end takes care of that. This reel is full of sensible, practical design ideas like this: it's the tidiest, most well-organised thing in my garden.

My poor chaotic old green, red and yellow hoses - all three of them - have been made entirely redundant and have been put out to grass in the garage while I decide what to do with them. If anyone out there fancies a few hours unknotting hosepipes, they're yours.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Avon calling

One of the slightly more unexpected side-effects of my move to Somerset last year has been that I find myself at the heart of what seems to be an area with a gravitational pull for outstanding nurseries.

Bulb beds carved from a field but full of treasure

Desert to Jungle, Kelways in the Somerset Levels, the walled gardens of heritage vegmeisters Pennard Plants and Hewitt-Coopers of carnivorous plant fame are all within half an hour's drive. Jekka McVicar is a bit further up the M5, and Joy Michaud and her chillies are a short hop down towards the Dorset coast.

The dahlia bed: every possible variety (and that dark-petalled one)

Any of these would be a pilgrimage for me. But the one I was most thrilled to find as a near neighbour is Avon Bulbs.

I make a beeline for Avon every time I arrive in a floral marquee. I don't think I've ever come away from their stand without discovering a new treasure to squirrel away in my list of plants I must grow one day: they have unwavering and exquisitely good taste in plants.

Mathiasella bupleuroides 'Green Dream'

So last weekend they became the first of my pilgrimages, largely because they generously opened their doors for a rare open day in aid of Friends of African Nursing (a small but tirelessly energetic charity doing marvellous work training African nurses in better hygiene practices: look them up, and help them if you can).

Knee high Kniphofia 'Light of the World'

Owner Chris Ireland-Jones and his family started Avon in 1990, in a middlingly derelict 7-acre former dairy farm in South Petherton (a stone's throw from Margery Fish's garden at East Lambrook Manor - told you I was in a good gardening area).

Dahlia coccinea var palmeri

They're exclusively mail order (apart from voracious visitors like our group last weekend) and make 2/3 of their annual income between early September and mid November. I was tempted to ask Chris why he wasn't in a shed somewhere feverishly packing bulbs instead of wasting time with us lot, but I suspect he was quite happy to have a break.

Chelsea is the lodestone for the whole of the nursery's year. They have three chilling sheds with which they time the bulbs to flower in that last week in May. His description of the routine for tulips - lift in March, bring in to 2-3°C to stop them growing, when the weather forecast says cold, you move them outside to keep them green, as soon as the temperature rises you bring them in again... well, it had me tired just thinking about it.

Nerine x bowdenii 'Zeal Giant'

The stock beds are long, thin strips cut out of a field, punctuated with high wall-like hedges to absorb the wind. It kept reminding me of my old allotment; except here the crops are bulbs, bulking up in great blocks of foliage and flower.

Actaea simplex 'Brunette'

Most of course were getting ready to die back for the winter (if they hadn't already); but there were some wonderful late summer bulbs still in glorious bloom. Eucomis, dahlia, camassias, kniphofia and some sultry Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’: a lesson for anyone who thinks bulbs are just for spring.

Eucomis pallida en masse

We had an absorbing and hugely enjoyable day, made all the more so by Chris’s affable and knowledgeable company. I’m afraid I disgraced myself by failing dismally to stay with the group and do as I was told; well, who in their right mind would walk past a bed brimming with dahlias, including a glimpse of one spidery dark one which was ravishingly lovely, and not stop?

So: without further ado, here’s the list of plants which caught my eye and tempted me off the beaten track.

Nerine x bowdenii ‘Zeal Giant’: the most in-yer-face nerine I’ve ever seen. Lipstick pink and huge.

Dahlia coccinea var palmeri: towering tall but airy and graceful, dancing with clear orange flowers.

Eucomis pallida: thick, upright spires of cream over strappy green leaves, tall and imposing

Eucomis villosa: shorter, at 2ft, and scented: the pale flower has a button-like darker centre

Kniphofia ‘Light of the World’: the tiniest, daintiest red-hot poker, little more than a foot high

Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’: no flowers now, but worth it just for the handsome foliage

Dahlia ‘Dark Desire’: jumped out at me from the dahlia bed: slim near-black petals and a buttery eye

Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’: spires of dreamy white over deeply-toothed leaves of deepest purple.
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