Thursday, July 26, 2012

A seedy sort of day

Poppy: not white, but full of seeds, more usefully than you'd think
It's funny, isn't it. There are days when one thing just keeps popping up, demanding your attention, in lots of different and usually unrelated places.

Today it's been seeds. First I was researching a seedy subject for an article I was writing: saving seed from your best plants (always a good idea: you save money, you ensure you've got stocks of your favourite variety for next year, and if you do it over a number of years you end up with a strain uniquely adapted to your own conditions: a sort of micro-local heritage variety. What's not to like?).

In this case I was looking into how much better polytunnels are for isolating veg like carrots or chard which would otherwise cross-pollinate all over the place. My friend once ended up with pumpkin-butternuts because her cucurbits got busy and re-seeded the resulting mongrels all over her veg patch: quite tasty but very odd.

I digress. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the finer points of cross-breeding calabrese, my daughter - on holiday therefore terminally indolent - called me in to see something she was watching on the telly.

It was indeed, as she emphatically informed me, epic: Neil Buchanan, failed rock star, Scouser, and hyper-bouncy presenter of the CITV series Art Attack (which almost - almost - reaches the heady heights of Vision On, and from me that is high praise indeed) was creating an enormous and finely detailed snake, twice his own height, out of poppy seeds. By the wonder that is video on demand, you can see the whole thing here (from 7 minutes in). Poppy seeds as art material. Who knew.

And that reminded me of the thing I was reading last night in this month's copy of The Garden: it was an absorbing and rather wonderful visit to the private garden created by Sybille Kreutzberger and the late Pamela Schwerdt, erstwhile head gardeners at Sissinghurst Castle.

The bit that stuck in my mind was their painstaking pursuit of the cultivars they regarded as the best possible selections. They fell in love with a white form of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, they saw in a picture taken in Afghanistan: it wasn't available in the UK, so they wrote to a bakery which decorated its bread with poppy seeds sourced there. The white poppy is now growing in the White Garden at Sissinghurst. Now that's what I call dedication.

And then just to round it all off, I reminded myself to sign up for Carl Legge's seedy penpals scheme: thanks go to Zoe for the timely blog post. I think seed-swapping penpals is quite the loveliest idea I've come across for a long time. I always have a few spare seed packets kicking about the place and can't think of anything nicer than sharing the love with someone (and hopefully getting some interesting bits & bobs I've never tried before in return).

I urge you to join in, if you haven't already: we could all do with a few more seeds in our lives.

Friday, July 20, 2012

In with the old, in with the new

Sweetpea 'Cupani': the original, introduced in the 17th century
Sometimes I think there's never been a more exciting time to grow your own.

It was brought home to me when I went round the inspirational kitchen garden at Knightshayes recently. It's no showcase museum piece but a belt-and-braces, workaday sort of garden which pays its way by selling its produce, so what it grows needs to be worth growing.

Its indefatigable head gardener Lorraine is a keen advocate of heritage varieties – 104 heritage tomato varieties (she likes German beefsteaks and the near-wild species tomato, Solanum pimpinellifolium) and 10 heritage garlic, plus peas, sweetpeas and potatoes.

Pea 'Magnum Bonum': modern pea breeding has focussed on dwarf, self-supporting peas but hugely tall 19th century varieties like this one and the 'Telephone' strain are far heavier yielding and more satisfying to grow all round
There's a bed of oca next to the onions, and she's got achocha scrambling among the toms in the greenhouse. In fact, it's just like my garden (though on a spectacularly larger and less weed-ridden scale): familiar veg like carrots and cabbages rubbing shoulders with the very old and – to the UK, anyway - the very new.

Achocha in the greenhouse: this one is the exploding cucumber type (Cyclanthera explodens) not the edible achocha which is a finer, less coarse (if also less amusing) plant. The fruits of the edible one taste of sweet peppers
Until about 10 or so years ago, we had to put up with a limited range of ever-blander varieties created not for us little insignificant gardeners but for large-scale farmers and supermarket buyers. That meant they were all exactly the same shape and size, they were robust and held together well enough to be picked by machine, and they stored well for long periods of time in refrigerated lorries.

Well, as a set of criteria for choosing something worth growing in your back garden I can't think of a worse lot of reasons.

You may have noticed that there are a few things missing from the list. What about flavour? Juiciness? Explode-in-the-mouth ripeness that makes you dance round the kitchen in glee?

Babington leeks and and old Italian variety of green garlic, in the main garden
Now we've got the rediscovery of heritage veg, nostalgia veg (I'm talking samphire, scorzonera, Hamburg parsley, skirret – whole families of edibles we used to grow but don't any more) and the arrival of a whole world's worth of exotics. Joy Larkcom started it by going to China and bringing back mizuna, mibuna and pak choi; now there's Mark Diacono and his Szechuan peppers and James Wong persuading us to grow everything from wasabi to electric buttons (Spilanthes oleracea) which pop and fizz in your mouth like space dust.

It's telling that at the Edible Gardening Show earlier this year, when Suttons brought a few Danish trolleys' worth of the weirdest edibles they could think of as an experiment, they'd sold out by lunchtime on the first day. This is no passing fad: our curiosity is well and truly piqued.

And then there are all the ornamentals which turn out to be edible: Fuchsia berries (try 'Riccatonii'), flowers from sweet rocket to nasturtiums and violets, Eleagnus berries and elderflowers.

Heritage toms in the lean-to greenhouse. Lorraine says they go through a 'teenage' stage and sulk for a while when they reach about 6" tall: but they get over it, and romp away so fast they catch up with everything else around
Some argue heritage varieties aren't worth growing; well, I'll continue to swoon at the faint-inducingly gorgeous flavour of my 'Marmande' beefsteak tomatoes, if that's OK with you. Tricky as hell to grow, but you keep going just to have one unforgettable taste – and you try buying that in the shops.

And besides, heritage varieties saved by The Heritage Seed Library preserve our genetic pool of veg varieties – whether or not they're worth giving garden room to - so we don't narrow it all down so much we're breeding in ever-diminishing circles.

At the other end of the spectrum you've got the early adopters: those who say traditional veg are boring and everyone should be throwing out their spuds in favour of yacon. Well: given that all my potatoes have gone over to blight in the last week there might be something in that (though I'll mourn the loss of my 'Duke of York' should that sad day ever come).

But on the whole, for most people (certainly for me) the whole process of getting to know exotics is a series of experiments. I've tried and rejected tomatilloes – lovely plant, but not enough crop or uses for it (much as I like salsa) to justify the greenhouse room. But I now grow sweet potatoes every year, in big baskets under cover, as though the crop isn't huge it's big enough and it makes a nice change from the spuds.

And just as we thought there was time to get bored, along come yard-long beans, Chinese arrowroot and lablab beans courtesy of Sally Cunningham's Sowing New Seeds project for Garden Organic. Some will go the way of ra-ra skirts and beehive hairdos: others (my money's on the lab-labs) will be the allotment staples of tomorrow. Isn't it great?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

July flowers

I have been feeling a bit gloomy about my garden this year - along with most of the gardening population of the British Isles I suspect (with the possible exception of Mr Colborn).

It's so hard to keep walking outside when it's pouring with rain in the sure knowledge that you'll get water in places it really oughtn't to be however well waterproofed you are while also knowing you're fighting a losing battle against the slugs and the weeds and the terminal torpor of those plants you want to grow. Everything is at best, half-hearted: or at worst, munched to a sad little stump just above the ground.

Or at least, that's how it was in my head. I think gardeners suffer from an unfortunate habit of only seeing the things which are wrong. And that's why I value Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens so much: it forces you to venture out with your camera and look at what's good, and beautiful, and above all working. And it always leaves me feeling much better about things than I did before.

Here are a few of the lovely things I found, to my surprise, thriving and rejoicing in the relentless rain, and proving that this awful summer is, after all, good for something.

Astrantia major

Geranium pyrenaicum 'Bill Wallis'

Rosa 'Charles de Mills'

Rosa canina: not sure of the selection but it grows rampantly
over my front wall and flowers furiously all summer long

Hemerocallis dumortieri

Meconopsis cambrica

Tropaeolum speciosum 'Cobra'

Paeonia officinalis, looking a bit louche and about to seed but
I rather like them like this with their corsets loosened

One of the very many oriental poppies seeding themselves about:
they're almost a weed but I haven't the heart to pull them out when they look this lovely

...and another one

Thymus 'Coccineus Group'

Valeriana officinalis

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Heart

Petasites japonicus var giganteus
Giant Butterbur
(the fleshy, celery-like stems are edible)

Monday, July 09, 2012

Monkeying around

Well, that's better.

The week before last I took three whole days off work to cram my head choc full of foundation depths for single-skin versus retaining walls. At the same time as learning appropriate plants to use in carpet bedding schemes and the maintenance routines for prairie plantings. All part of the eclectic syllabus that is the RHS Level 3 (the Advanced as was: these days have to use the new but singularly uninformative new way of referring to the same qualification).

Then I took two utterly horrible exams. Well, they weren't that horrible as it was such a relief to offload all that information from my perilously overstretched brain and splurt it out onto the paper, but I won't know if I passed till at least the end of this month if not August.

I'm doing my RHS3 at Bicton College in Devon: set in what was once a stately home in Grade I listed parkland, it's really a very fine sort of place for what is, in the end, rather a down-to-earth sort of establishment. It's full of teenagers messing about trying to crash tractors and build York stone patios in fields and do obscure things to meerkats (there is an animal care centre of some sort there: I think, but am not sure, that it trains veterinary nurses).

And then there are the oldies: people like me and the motley crew of gardeners, plant nursery workers and general horticultural whizzes I was privileged enough to share a class with. They included the former editor of the Westonbirt magazine and the lady who organises Sidmouth in Bloom. It was all a little humbling, as these things should be.

Anyway, the reason I started explaining all this is because my final exit from Bicton (until next year: if I take a third module I get my Diploma so I thought I may as well get it all done at once) was down the college's world-famous 500 metre long monkey puzzle avenue.

This has been a real joy to drive along every time I visit the college. I'm not usually a big fan of monkey puzzles (Araucaria araucana) when plonked as a piece of Victoriana in otherwise sensible gardens; but planted like this, like proper trees allowed to be as majestic and sweeping as they're meant to be, they transformed my view of them altogether.

I have grown to love this long, noble driveway: I particularly love the way the oldest of the monkey-puzzles form fat, ridged feet at ground level which look for all the world like the feet of elephants.

There are 25 trees on each side, the originals grown from seed at the Veitch Nursery (which was not, as many reports would have it, based in London but in fact in Devon, with an outpost in London: it still exists, though re-named St Bridgets, and a fine nursery it is: do visit if you're ever in the Exeter area).

They propagate hundreds of monkey-puzzle trees from the avenue every year in Bicton's greenhouses and sell them on: and some go to replace those in the avenue which have finally decided enough is enough. The result is a pleasing variation in size and texture in the trees which gives the avenue a kind of rhythm all its own.

Planting began in 1843, and several of the original specimens still survive (you can tell which as they're tallest, and also most moth-eaten).

There is a proper certified Champion Tree among them (one of several of various types at the college): I think (but am not entirely sure) that it might be this one:

It's 26 metres tall, the largest specimen in the UK, and its girth is 4 metres round. Quite a tree.

Of course monkey-puzzle nuts are also edible: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, no less, has attempted to climb Bicton's trees to snaffle some to try (he didn't manage it: monkey puzzles are notoriously difficult to climb, so difficult, in fact, that they would puzzle a monkey. Funny, that).

The nuts are described as soft and like pine nuts or perhaps Brazil nuts - light and delicious. Trouble is, you need at least six female trees to each male to get nuts: so as long as you've got the sort of room Bicton has, you can grow your own. Otherwise, I can't find a supplier in the UK: so you'll just have to go and talk very, very nicely to the gardeners at Bicton. See you there.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Postcard from Hampton Court: Perfect combinations

Achillea 'Anthea' and Leucanthemum x superbum 'Goldrauch'
Barnsdale Gardens, Rutland

Seline armeria, Geranium pratense 'Violaceum', Malva sylvestris 'Zebrina'
The Botanic Nursery, Wiltshire

Achillea 'Fanal' and Salvia nemorosa 'Ostfriesland'
Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants, Hampshire

Heuchera 'Lime Marmalade' and Selaginella apoda
Madrona Nursery, Kent

Cenolophium denudatum, Pilosella aurantiaca, Achillea 'Walther Funcke', and Anemanthele lessoniana
The Landform Garden, designed by Catherine MacDonald (gold, Best Summer Garden)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Postcard from Hampton Court: Of grey roses

I have a little ritual whenever I visit the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show: I visit the Roses and Romance marquee to have a look at the latest Rose of the Year.

I'm secretly in love with roses: I keep trying to give up growing them, as they're far too romantical-like for my wellies-and-wasabi mental picture of myself as a gardener. But they keep wriggling back in somehow. I'm currently hatching a plan to sneak more in under the guise of being species roses, therefore having hips which are officially Useful.

Anyway: this year, it's 'You're Beautiful', bred by Graham Fryer: pic above. Very pink, very classic, rather handsome in a Barbara Cartland sort of way: this shade of candy pink isn't quite my thing but I could see why it won.

However: while I was there I began to notice there is an ominous trend which is creeping into the rosey world. They've started breeding grey roses.

This is 'Grey Dawn': it's the colour of faded curtains, or the dresses in BBC costume dramas, or maybe the papery skin of old ladies. This picture makes it look quite nice, but believe me, it's grey.

I blame the recent unseemly race to breed a true blue rose: it produced a lot of roses they said were blue when in fact they were undeniably lilac. 'Rhapsody in Blue' was about the closest they got (even David Austin admits it's purple, but 'fades to slate blue' with age). Here's another one, 'Blue for You' (with apologies for the lack of focus):


See what I mean? Lilac.

Luckily the Japanese put an end to all that a few years ago with a bit of genetic engineering injecting a delphinium gene into a rose to make The Blue Rose (still think it's a bit violet though). But the experiments have left their legacy.

As well as the grey roses, there are brown roses: a wave of washed-out colour that isn't apricot and isn't cream and isn't anything, really. This one reminds me of a properly nice apricot (Apricot Silk, perhaps) smudged down with one of those blues or greys:

It's 'Julia's Rose': and it's beige. I like it better than the grey one, but it's definitely a meh sort of colour.

Part of the problem is that these colours are so hard to place in the border. One of my neighbours has 'Rhapsody in Blue' planted among a little mini rose garden outside her house (she's elderly, so be nice). She's bang up to date: but that's the one rosebush that doesn't look right. It's weird, out of synch, the wrong colour for roses.

On the other hand, all this messing with what is good and right has had some positive side-effects. Once you go down the brown route, you reach a fork in the road: the poo option is clearly to be avoided, so obviously the only way is chocolate.

And this is where brown roses start to show why they should exist. Just look at this.

It's 'Hot Chocolate', a sumptuous floribunda that justifies all the misguided breeding efforts in the world if the point of them was to lead to this. Yum, yum.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Postcard from Hampton Court: Carpet bedding is back

The floral (well, green) clock on the wall of summer garden The Wheels of Time (Bronze)

Vertical planting... or carpet bedding?
Another green picture in the Low Cost High Impact garden Summer in the Garden (Silver)

Carpet bedding galore, and all exquisitely executed by the masters of the art at Bournemouth Borough Council's show garden A Very Victorian Fantasy (Silver-gilt) 

Shed roof at The Garlic Farm (gold, and best exhibit in the Growing for Taste marquee)

And more edible carpet bedding, this time from Dobies: Pak choi 'Chuchoi' and 'Rubi' with quite the brightest marigolds I've ever seen

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Postcard from Hampton Court: Conceptual

'Light at the End of the Tunnel': Matthew Childs' moving depiction of his journey from injury in the 7/7 bombing through to jacking in his job in advertising and starting a new life as a garden designer. It was the deserved winner of Best Conceptual Garden.

Walking through the industrial boards-and-corrugated iron structure, you start in a dark and dank tunnel lined with hummocks of Asplenium scolopendrium and moss: the parallels with the Underground are unnerving, and the ceiling was dripping when I was there so I started thinking of other claustrophobic, underground places like coalmines.

As you walk through, the gaps widen and the light creeps in: the old, worn, stained sleepers give way to new oak and the planting lightens to dancing Gaura lindheimeri and pretty Astrantia 'Roma' and 'Buckland' amid airy grasses. Thoughtful, detailed, lovely.

The Coral Desert, by Antonia Young (Silver-gilt)
I loved this, with its clever juxtapositions (the driest plants in the world - cacti and succulents - made to look just like underwater coral) drawing attention to the plight of the coral reefs. And the ceiling was a two-inch transparent tray of rippling water. How cool is that?
I admit I make a beeline for the Conceptual Gardens at Hampton Court. More challenging (and often better-executed) than the big show gardens, they're edgy, interesting, thought-provoking.

They always break the rules: they make me perpetually re-think what I mean by the word 'garden'. I've seen conceptual gardens that are upside down, under the ground, under water and inside boxes. Most don't look like 'gardens' at all: and that's why they're so inspiring.

I've always thought that the fact that conceptual gardens are so popular is a tribute to the gardening public. It's easy to think 'most' people who say they like gardening are just boringly traditional and set in their ways, growing veg in straight lines and lining their clipped lawns with bright pink rhododendrons.

And some are. But many - I would even venture to say 'most' - of those who take the trouble to go to a flower show are far more interesting, and interested than that. That's hundreds of thousands of people who relish a challenge and want to garden in a more intelligent, creative way.

There are now conceptual spin-offs at Tatton Park and Chelsea: and they are attracting more crowds and more discussion than anything else.

So perhaps it's not surprising the mainstream designers want a slice of the action: ideas first seen in conceptual gardens are slowly, surely creeping in to the mainstream and sparking other little flashes of inspiration. It keeps design alive, new, inspiring, moving forward: and that can be nothing but good.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Postcard from Hampton Court: Monday

Sorry (again): another long silence.

I have been camera-less which has left me bereft and strangely incapable of wittering on as I usually do. Not sure why not having visible proof silences me quite so efficiently but luckily (or unluckily, depending on your point of view) another flower show came along forcing me to buck up my ideas and acquire a new camera post haste. Canon SX40, since you ask, and yes it is far more complicated than the last one and no I still haven't got further than the auto setting.

The show, of course, was the wonderful RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show: huge, fizzing with energy and ideas, slightly exhausting, thought-provoking, unmissable.

The extraordinary garden in the picture is Anoushka Feiler's 'Bridge over Troubled Water', which won a gold and Best in Show: and for me it stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Show gardens at Hampton Court can be a bit hit-and-miss: what Tony Smith was doing sticking plastic bottles on Arundo donax for Ecover I don't know (his paving conceptual garden was a bit... mmmm... too). Still: at least they try to push the boundaries and do something different, even if it doesn't always come off.

But Anoushka's garden was pure gold: or rather pink. It was the most sensuous, feminine, diaphanous garden: passionate, loving, emotional. The idea behind it was quite simple: a bridge as a journey over hardship (more specifically, overactive bladder - but I did my best not to think about that too much as it just made me want to cross my legs. Click the link if you want to know more.)

Either side were great banks of lush ivies and ferns dripping down to the water - a gorgeous and practical use for vertical planting - on which was built a sumptuous hummocky grassland of pinks and greens over which floated airy honey locust trees (Gleditsia triacanthos 'Elegantissima').

I adored the planting: here Echinacea 'Fatal Attraction' (mysterious and other-worldly without its petals), Dicentra 'King of Hearts', Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' and, I think, the feathery plumes of Deschampsia cespitosa 'Pixie Fountain'.

We've seen Anoushka's work before: she created last year's upside-down conceptual garden, 'Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky'. Another passionate creation, full of laughter and hope. I'm so glad she's back for more: and I hope we see a lot more of her gardens in years to come.
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