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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September flowers

There are some bad things about September. The light, for one thing: after a summer of shutting in the chickens just before I go to bed (so that's 10pm ish), we're now down to just-after-supper (around 7.30 or so). That's the end of evening gardening, then.

But there are good things about September, too. I adore autumn; it's my favourite season after spring. I love the anticipation as the trees begin turning ahead of next month's pyrotechnic display. And even the slight nip in the air is refreshing without - yet - carrying a tang of anxiety about frost.

But most of all I love that my garden comes back to life after the exhaustion of August. So much is in second bloom, and even the soldiers who have been marching on in stalwart fashion right through since June seem to perk up a bit and put an extra spring in their step.

So for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, hosted as ever by Carol at May Dreams Gardens, here are some of the many, many flowers putting a smile on my face whenever I go in the garden at the moment.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A bit of botanising #2

All that ranting about botanic gardens was by way of introduction: that last post started out meaning to be a tour of Ventnor Botanic Garden but got sidetracked before I’d finished the first sentence.

Ventnor has echoes of Tresco and those impossibly exotic-looking gardens off the west coast of Scotland

That’s because it’s hard to ignore the slow slide into decline, the fraying around the edges, the fuzzy lines and good-enoughs that have crept into this still wonderfully quixotic and fascinating collection of southern hemisphere plants.

Tetrapanax papyrifer here lives in the ground from one year to the next, revealing an alarming tendency to sucker madly when happy

Ventnor is one of those places which is much too nice for its own good. It’s never charged entrance, for example; and it relies heavily on its doughty army of volunteers, ever more so since the budget cuts hit. The result is a certain rather endearing amateurishness, disguising a quite astonishing plant collection for those who know to look closer.

Magnolia grandiflora bursting into massive flower

The garden has about £600,000 funding a year from the Isle of Wight County Council, of which £300,000 is returned through revenues like car parking tickets and plant sales. For its £300k the council gets a superb specialist staff.

Though 'ordinary' annuals are creeping in everywhere, they're trying to use them with panache: I liked this fennel against the crocosmia

The team were galvanised some years back by the arrival of Chris Kidd, who among other innovations came up with the idea of converting the previously rather worthy greenhouse behind the plant sales into the greenHouse; we’ll forgive the idiosyncratic syntax as it’s a riot. You enter from behind a crashing, deafening waterfall into a Mad Max fantasy of rusting pipework, green and steaming pools, and a central tank where fish swim among the giant plates of the Amazonian waterlilies (Victoria amazonica). Sheer theatre.

The New Zealand gully: a little obscured but still dramatic

Outside, it's less easy to find things to wax lyrical about. This has never been the best-kept of gardens: a legacy of its council funding. But it does have flashes of brilliance: the dramatic descent into the New Zealand gully, for example (though the tree ferns are perhaps a little too joyously happy here: a few years ago you could see down into the rocky canyon, but the view is now obscured).

And the new arid garden is fantastic: the best-kept (because newest) bit of the garden, it was full of treasures at best considered semi-hardy elsewhere, but in the Isle of Wight microclimate quite able to live outdoors all year round.

The Arid Garden: at the limits of climate change

This means some of the specimens in the garden are mind-boggling: a glimpse of what they can do if they put their minds to it. A loquat tree (Eriobotrya japonica) 20ft tall; massive, tree-scale palms; tender fuchsias towering above your head; sprawling cacti smothered in flowers and aloes you could curl up inside, if you didn’t mind the spikes.

Agave americana able to grow to the size it's meant to be

Here, Melianthus major grows into spreading thickets, fountaining dark bronze flowers; Echium pininana sends huge spires into the sky; and you’re forever finding tender-ish plants you adore but never previously knew existed. Firmiana simplex, the Chinese parasol tree, was my discovery for this year's visit: huge, foot-across dinnerplate leaves of an exquisite fresh green.

The dinner-plate leaves of Firmiana simplex

But there is bindweed taking hold among the shrubberies and the bedding is verging on the park-like to be inspiring. I spotted ragwort in the borders and most of the labels were broken or missing.

Annual bedding: quite nice, but in a garden like this, the cheaper option, and becoming all too prevalent

This is too special a place to allow to slip away. Former curator Simon Goodenough was driven away this year after 25 years to be almost immediately snapped up by the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and the remaining staff, with Chris Kidd at the helm, are fighting a brave but, I fear, losing battle against the combined forces of a council that wants to turn the place into a cheap’n’cheerful park, and a general ignorance of just how extraordinary the plants here are.

Ventnor deserves better: I just hope its fortunes improve before the slide becomes too steep for return.
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