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.
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