Gardening and Gardens

Each Month from my Window: March

This is usually one of my favourite times of year: the days are noticeably longer, the daffs are at their best, the tulips are just starting and everything is showing signs of new growth and promise for the future. Given the current situation the natural world seems to stand in stark contrast to our everyday lives. There is blossom on the trees, birdsong (which I can now hear clearly because there are no aeroplanes and very few cars) and new, pale green growth on all my plants, which are carrying on regardless of what is happening to us. In a way it is rather comforting. In the garden the kerria is still providing a brilliant buttery yellow glow and the pots of daffs and wallflowers are looking lovely. The last few days have encouraged some of the tulips to open too, a rather rash move which I hope they won’t regret when it gets colder again.

I have cleaned the windows so I can now see out properly but new developments mean that this post will also include things that are just inside my window – seed trays of opium poppies. Unfortunately they are living on the table where I mostly work, which is also where the cat’s favourite basket sits (sunny, over a radiator and with a good view of the street), so everything is a little cramped. Particularly as the seeds have to be moved onto the other table as the sun moves round. But full of hope.

The foxgloves, evening primroses, alliums and grasses are all showing promise of great things in the months ahead – although at the moment the blue fescue looks a little like a badly-shorn skinhead.

I have also gained a greenhouse. Well, a small greenhouse-shaped cloche that I rescued from a skip some years ago but never got round to cleaning. I now see why it was thrown away; apart from being slightly broken, it is about a quarter of an inch too small to accommodate a seed tray. After a certain amount of improvisation it now houses seeds of sunflowers and hollyhocks.

As of this morning, the opium poppies have germinated. I now have hundreds of new residents in the house too look after. Tiny delicate little plants who will need exactly the right amounts of sun, warmth and water if they are to transform into tall elegant flowers – it’s a bit daunting but very exciting as I don’t usually grow many seeds, saying my house has neither the space nor light necessary. I hope I can prove myself wrong.


Each Month From my Window: February

Most of the time when I look out of the window everything seems as it did in January: rain-battered, wind-swept and hunkered down. But there are little changes; the blue and gold irises (Iris reticulata ‘Fabiola’) have flowered, providing tiny pinpoints of colour in the front garden, the little Tete a tete daffs are in full bloom and the larger Trumpet daffs are starting to open. Kerria has taken over from winter jasmine as the yellow against my walls and the witch hazel (‘Rubin’) is now ablaze with flowers. It isn’t particularly scented but that doesn’t matter; it’s role in life is to brighten the view from my kitchen window, which it does to perfection, every spring and autumn. Photographs, at least mine, cannot do the witch hazel justice. I see it every morning from my kitchen and, even on the dullest winter day its deep red flowers shine against the dark green ivy. Photos show the slightly grubby white brick wall below and the houses beyond the back wall but my mind can block these out; all I see is a flame of brilliant colour against mysterious and magical rich green holly leaves. It is a good way to start each day.

Many years ago (well, sixteen) I read this article which argued, very convincingly as far as I was concerned, that 29th February should be regarded as an ‘extra’ day; one on which we could do whatever we liked. I have no idea who wrote it but whoever it was suggested one should ‘cut a caper, paint picture, stare into the distance or sing sea-shanties.’ They even suggested that ‘Politicians could tell the truth; journalists could choose to look on the bright side’. This 29th fell on a Saturday so I spent it working at Hatchards Bookshop; even so, it felt like a slightly special day. In London it started wet and miserable but by the end of the day the sky was clear and blue. It was as if the year knew it should shift towards spring.

Finally, an extract from a poem called Winter’s Turning by Amy Lowell:

Let us throw up our hats,
For we are past the age of balls
And have none handy.
Let us take hold of hands,
And race along the sidewalks,
And dodge the traffic in crowded streets.
Let us whir with the golden spoke-wheels
Of the sun.
For to-morrow Winter drops into the waste-basket,
And the calendar calls it March.


Each Month From my Window: January

Last month I bemoaned the fact that the best photographs of gardens in winter were usually photos of beautiful or evocative weather conditions. Of course it helps to have a good basic structure but I’m sure this is often easier on a larger scale. Monty Don’s front garden consists of 26 yews cut into cones of differing sizes and, while I don’t know the exact dimensions of this part of his garden, I suspect it is probably eight or even ten times the size of my entire plot. They achieve a beauty throughout the winter that my half-empty pots are never going to match. The following extract comes from Gardening at Longmeadow and describes looking out onto the garden at 2.30 on a February morning in 2002:

‘A breeze rippled the dark like a river and the silvery monochrome stripped away everything but shape from the yews. Twenty-six cones, each different but for that moment each perfect and each with its shadow like an echo……. It felt like a door had opened and shown me a parallel garden in another dimension.’

Much as I love the grasses in my front window boxes, they have some way to go before they will conjure up this level of magic.

But my bulbs are starting to appear and, with a judicious rearrangement of pots, I can see them as I write. The winter jasmine is still flowering merrily and, this morning, I spotted the first witch hazel flowers from the kitchen window.

Most of the photos are, I have to admit, a bit of a cheat. I see the plants from my window but I can blot out the parked cars, neighbouring houses and less-than-spectacular surrounding plants, which a photograph can’t. So, to misquote Eric Morecambe’s famous statement to the unfortunate Andrew Preview, ‘These are all the right plants, just not necessarily viewed from the right angle’.   


Making Week 25: Cushions and Not-New-Year’s Resolutions

Patchwork has got me through the last few weeks of ‘making’ and resulted in a couple of robust cushions that will make the uncomfortable garden bench positively cosy.

I have never been good at keeping New Year’s resolutions so, when I started the weekly making project back in July I deliberately decided on 25 weeks as I knew it would get me safely past the crucial time of making unsuccessful resolutions.

In fact I made a series of ‘resolutions’ on 22nd December and fine-tuned them on Twelfth Night. As far as I am concerned, once the winter solstice is passed it is a gentle slope all the way to summer: bright sunny mornings, long twilight evenings and meals in the garden.

Having roughly got the hang of papier mâché and put my patchwork fabrics into some sort of order my plan is to complete things this year. First the remaining fifty boats. Then the partly-made castle, the planned patchworks and a host of other things that are at the ‘to be started/finished very soon’ stages. I am planning to set aside one day each week for making, and ideally finishing, things. I’ll post them once a month to balance the garden posts, which I’m going to alter slightly this year.  

Roy Lancaster has started a new series in The Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly magazine, called Through my Window. I spend a considerable time looking out of the window, both intentionally and when I am meant to be working. Unlike his, my garden is tiny and, also probably unlike him, I do very little actual gardening between October and March. The lack of space means I can’t rely on trees to provide year-round interest and the same lack means I can’t afford much space for ‘winter-interest’ plants. Summer is when I spend most time in the garden (gardening and sitting) so it is then that most of my plants need to look their best. But I look out of my windows all year and I’m convinced that I always have something, however small, to look at. The following posts will see if this is true. For the moment here are some wafty grasses, winter jasmine flowers and someone who knows she is not meant to trample through the window boxes.


Making Week 24: Waylaid by the Garden

I had planned to spend today making boats but it was so beautiful I went into the garden to do some ‘quick tidying’ and stopped four hours later. This is the thing I probably love most about my little garden; the fact that it accommodates my wishes regarding when I want to garden. I tidied the ivy, tied up the climbers, cleared the dead leaves and had a delightful and productive time. But none of the things I did were urgent, they could happily have waited a few weeks or even months. When I was a child there always seemed to be an urgency about the garden. To be fair, it was large but my memories are of things that had to be done, rather than done because it was a beautiful day and one wanted to be outside.  

I was not expecting flowers so the roses and snapdragons were a bonus. Equally heartening but less surprising was the winter jasmine.


Holiday Reading

First, a warning: I’m afraid this is a ridiculously long post – but there was no way round it as it contains seven books and several discoveries. I went to Edinburgh recently and, as always, based my reading on the rhyme from The Stockmistress of the now-closed QI Bookshop in Oxford:

Something old, something new, something made-up, something true, one that’s here and one that’s there and one that could be anywhere.

Something old: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I have not read this since I was about ten but an erudite friend who is a poet rereads it every year. I was curious as I simply remembered a rather charming story about a capable water rat, an over-excited mole and a ridiculous toad. How wrong. The descriptions are the things that make this book special; wonderful glimpses of countryside, waterways and picnics:


The Water Rat’s picnic for the Seafaring Rat: ‘Then he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.’

Or the Otter’s description of snow: ‘My! it was fine, coming through the snow as the red sun was rising and showing against the black tree-trunks! As you went along in the stillness, every now and then masses of snow slid off the branches suddenly with a flop! making you jump and run for cover. Snow-castles and snow-caverns had sprung up out of nowhere in the night – and snow bridges, terraces and ramparts – I could have stayed and played with them for hours.’

Something new: Caroline Scott, The Photographer of the Lost

Three brothers enlist in the army during the First World War and, predictably, not all return home. Harry, now a photographer, is searching for his elder brother in France, whilst Edie is searching for the same man, her husband. A man who quotes Yeats to her on their first meeting, telling her to ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. Caroline Scott is a historian so, as one would expect, the story rings true but what is remarkable about this book is the extent to which she has recreated the feel of the period and landscape of war-ravaged France. I really cared about the characters and I found myself sitting for hours in Edinburgh cafes, never quite able to tear myself away from the intertwining tale she so skilfully weaves.

Something made-up: Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

In July I rather rashly said that I would buy ‘fewer books’. There were lots of exceptions and a complicated set of rules regarding what I was allowed (known only to me) but I have pretty well stuck to it. This has allowed time for rereading. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials easily stood up to the umpteenth reading, so I am now rereading the first in his Sally Lockhart quartet. It is a Dickensian mystery with Indian palaces, opium dens, a charming photographer and, at its heart, a heroine with a pistol. And yes, it’s well worth a second read.

Something true: Gillian Tait, 111 Places in Edinburgh That You Shouldn’t Miss

I wish this book had been published when I lived in Edinburgh. Admittedly that was years ago and many of the recommendations in the book didn’t exist or were lying forgotten but it is packed with things you might otherwise miss so I’m sure Gillian Tait would have found the same number of interesting things then.


I rediscovered the Stockbridge Colonies; small, affordable dwellings built for and by skilled workmen and artisans in the nineteenth century. They are ingeniously-designed terraces of ‘flattened cottages’ with raised front doors on one side of each terrace so each flat has its own private entrance and garden. Situated alongside the Water of Leith, these properties are now ‘highly desirable’ in estate agents’ parlance and humble artisans have probably been priced out.

The book also introduced me to Dunbar’s Close Garden, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile. The series of courtyards looked lovely, even on a cold, damp, foggy day (the Scots have a word for this: dreich, which perfectly describes the grey skies and thick mist which is almost rain but not quite). In the seventeenth century this area was outside the city, just beyond the grand but heavily-fortified Netherbow which was one of the six points where people could cross the city walls. The area consisted of spacious mansions, outside the cramped city and conveniently close to Holyrood Palace. Forty years ago Dunbar’s Close Garden was created to give an idea of the terraced gardens attached to many of these houses. The structure ensures it looks good year-round but the planting merits several seasonal visits.

Another discovery was Dovecot Studios. This is a swimming bath converted into a weavers’ studio. You can look down from the gallery, which also hosts exhibitions, and see the weavers at work. It’s fascinating to watch them but the building is also a stunning piece of Victorian architecture with graceful arches and rooftop windows.   

One that’s here: Alexander McCall Smith, The Importance of Being Seven

Whenever I go to Edinburgh I read one of the 44 Scotland Street books. Many years ago I lived a couple of streets away and Alexander McCall Smith captures the area and its residents perfectly. Starting one of the books is like meeting up with an old friend after a long gap; there are no unpleasant surprises, it is gentle, funny and yet surprisingly thought-provoking. If you have ever stayed in, lived in or even just visited Edinburgh’s New Town (actually largely Georgian) I cannot recommend them highly enough. But you must read them in the correct order: 44 Scotland Street is the first.

One that’s there: Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News?

When the fifth Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky was published this autumn I decided to read the earlier ones again. Each story is complete but the back story about Jackson develops through the series. In this, the third, he is again embroiled in a slightly unbelievable series of coincidences but it doesn’t matter. The books are excellent and definitely stand up to the test of rereading. The crime is there but doesn’t dominate and Jackson definitely passes the charisma test – I’m not a huge fan of crime unless there is a charismatic detective (Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, or Kyril Bonfiglioli’s the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai: ‘Degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, seasoned epicurean, unwilling assassin and knave about Piccadilly….’).

One that could be anywhere: Neil Gaiman, Stardust

A young man goes on a quest to find a star to win the heart of the woman he loves. So far, so usual. But this quest involves the land beyond the Wall – the land of faery, and three princes and a witch are racing against him. Reasonably enough, the star herself does not wish to be taken by anyone. The story gallops along with the urgency of a traditional fairy tale enlivened by Neil Gaiman’s amazing imagination. Another book which gives more with each reread.


These books should be easily available at ‘all good bookshops’, please buy them there, if you can, rather than from a characterless online site.

Each Month in my Garden: December – The Right Weather & Plant Names

The Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine arrived at the beginning of the month and I was struck by the fact that most photographs of gardens in winter are actually pictures of interesting weather. Mist, bright sunlight, frost and snow all make for great photos. Less so the greyish days we usually get. Christmas trees brighten everything but it’s usually the fairy lights that do the brightening rather than the actual trees. So there won’t be any photos of my garden this month.

The magazine also had an article on the change of rosemary’s Latin name. It is now to be part of the genus Salvia, and Rosmarinus officinalis has become Salvia rosmarinus. I see the logic behind the change but I mourn the loss of officinalis which, according to William Stearn (Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners) means ‘Sold in shops; applied to plants with real or supposed medicinal properties’. Nowadays plants are sold in a vast array of shops, not just in nurseries and garden centres but almost everywhere from gift shops to supermarkets, but historically officinalis conferred a certain status on plants. In Botanical Latin William Stearn expands the definition, writing ‘It is derived from opificina shortened to officina, originally a workshop or shop, later a monastic storeroom, then a herb-store, pharmacy or drug-shop’. The name gave rosemary a sense of importance which it has now lost, presumably because common sage, or Salvia officinalis, got there first. 

Russian sage has also been absorbed into the genus with Perovskia atriplicifolia becoming Salvia yangii. What would have been wrong with Salvia perovskia? Poor Russian General V. A. Perovski, 1794-c.1857, (according to William Stearn), loses his credit, which seems rather harsh. But then the RHS Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening describes him as B. A. Perovskii, a Turkestani statesman. Both are books I would normally trust without question. The internet, which I don’t necessarily trust credits Vasily Alekseevich Perovsky, who seems to have had an interesting life fighting in Turkey followed by time on the then Russian Empire’s south-eastern border, extending the frontier with varying degrees of success. It seems unlikely he had time to go plant hunting so perhaps he doesn’t deserve the credit. Another count, Count Lev Alekseyevich von Perovski, who lived at the same time, has given his name to the mineral perovskite. His Wikipedia article starts with the following charming warning:  

Not to be confused with Lev Nikolaievich Perovski, Aleksei Alekseivich Perovski, or other Counts Perovski.

As the RHS article points out plant labels tend to be printed in large batches so it may be several years before the changes appear on retailers’ shelves anyway. By the time we’ve adapted there may well be further discoveries……


Each Month in my Garden: November

My primary aim for the back garden is for it to have lots of places to sit surrounded by flowers. Although it is tiny I have four different areas which accommodate all needs and weathers: the bench by back door that catches the sun at elevenses time, two sets of tables and chairs (sun/shade, eating/sewing/reading/making, friends/alone) and the summer house which catches the last rays of sun in the evening and is perfect for times when it’s too chilly or too wet to sit outside. By November the sun is too low in the sky to do much other than fleetingly appear over the tops of the surrounding buildings and even the summer house (no heating, a draughty window and a bit damp) is too cold to sit in. The garden gets an autumn tidy but that’s about it.

The front garden is different as I go through it every day and look out onto it from the table in the bay window where I supposedly work. The grasses here last well into autumn, the rose flowers, albeit intermittently, till Christmas and there are more flowers but even so I do little actual gardening as everything starts to close down. An unexpected bonus this year is the jasmine which I planted in the summer to twine along the front fence. This is the third time it’s been moved; in its two previous homes in the back garden it was very unhappy, the first because of too much shade and the second because of a very dominant ivy. Now it gets the afternoon sun, seems much happier and this year, for the first time, has beautiful autumn colour. In the past it’s always just given up in October, dropped its leaves and sulked. 

When I was in Edinburgh I walked through Inverleith Park and the Botanic Garden but, if I’m honest I went mostly for the amazing views of the city’s skyline. The bare branches silhouetted against the blue sky were an unexpected bonus.


Each Month in my Garden: October

It’s autumn. Every morning I look out of the kitchen window and the colours of the witch hazel remind me that summer is over. Not that I mind; the garden has shifted and the colours of the leaves and grasses are beautiful. There are even some flowers.

There’s been a lot of rain and I’ve noticed that grasses, in particular, look beautiful with raindrops hanging from their wafty stems. I’ve also realised that they are impossible to photograph successfully, at least with my fairly basic camera and even more basic ‘point and click’ attitude. Next year’s forget-me-nots were easier.

Many years ago I fell in love with a house in Edinburgh. Or, to be exact, I fell in love with its bay window. It was a perfectly ordinary Victorian house but there was a table in the bay window, with a lamp and a pile of books. I had no idea who lived there but I imagined wonderful books being written at the table. I came home and rearranged the front room and this is now the table where I do much of my writing. For most of the year the grasses create a perfect screen from the street, particularly at this time of year with their airy plumes and autumnal colours.

I’ve bought bulbs from de Jaeger again this year. They are slightly more expensive than many others (especially if you aren’t careful when choosing the cultivars) but last year I had a 100% success rate. Every single bulb I planted produced a flower and most lasted very well. This has never happened before. I’ve planted bulbs and, at best 75% have flowered. The aim this year was to plan carefully and buy fewer bulbs as I knew I could rely on them. Of course, like a small child in a sweet shop, I bought more than I intended. But I have planted them all, a bit late for the daffs and alliums, and a bit early for the tulips, but they are at least all in the ground.   


Each Month in my Garden: September by the Seaside

September is one of my favourite months. Partly because it is ‘autumn’ but nearly always behaves as if it is still summer; it feels like stolen time, a sort of permanently sunny bank holiday. At the end of the month I went to Devon and, driving there, I was surprised how autumnal the countryside looked. It may still have been summer in London but the fields and woodlands of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset all had a distinctly golden tinge. It was lovely but in a slightly wistful way. As I was driving, in the interests of safety, there are no photos.

My friend lives by the seaside and this too had tipped from the buckets and spades of summer to deserted expanses of sand. But it was still warm enough to paddle.

This has nothing to do with gardens but it was one of the best puddings I’ve had for a long time. It was called something like ‘Every Child’s Worst Nightmare’ and tasted every bit as good as it looked. Thank you Relish in Ilfracombe