The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show always prompts me to look at my garden and plan for the future. The fact that the show was held in September rather than May this year has, in a way, been an advantage; I like making plans in September, I suppose because of years of starting the new academic year at this time.
The Show Gardens, even the small ones, are usually impractical for the average gardener but there are always ideas one can use: flower combinations, interesting plants for shade or even imaginative paving. When the flower show was cancelled last year and delayed this year till autumn I felt my (tiny) plot was in need of some new inspiration. Tom Stuart-Smith provided me with that inspiration. Now I have been to Chelsea, I am returning to his book, for more ideas, both sensible and wildly impractical for my little plot.
Ever since I saw Tom Stuart-Smith’s first garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 1998 I have wanted him to write a book. I loved the way he combined plants and made a formal, traditional garden look interesting and different. But gardens at flower shows only give you a single glimpse of a designer’s ideas. Now, after over twenty years’ wait we have a book on his gardens and ideas. Drawn from the Land is a magnificent book; it describes twenty-four projects including private commissions and public garden such as RHS Wisley in Surrey. There are design sketches and fabulous photography. Each garden is described by Tim Richardson, one of the most engaging being Tom Stuart-Smith’s own garden, The Barn in Hertfordshire, just across the lane from the house where he grew up and first developed his passion for plants and gardens. There are also two essays by Tim Richardson on planting and design and two by Tom Stuart-Smith in which he reveals his influences, inspirations and methods.
I bought the book when it was published in May and since then it has variously sat on the kitchen table, on a bench in the garden or in the summerhouse, my three favourite reading spots. I have dipped in and out of it and marvelled at the gardens and the stories behind them. As with the Chelsea gardens, all outscale my tiny London patch but in every garden I have found something of interest, even if I can only dream of putting some of the ideas into practice.
Unlike many of the beautiful books published on gardens this one is beautiful and genuinely interesting. Tom Stuart-Smith, by working with nature and the landscape creates unique and very wonderful gardens. Writer and historian Tim Richardson is the perfect person to describe both them and their stories.
I haven’t forgotten about this website but I must admit that the ease of Instagram has tended to supersede the discipline of writing regular posts. Unfortunately, I have been hoisted by my own petard as WordPress has sneakily altered its layout behind my back and I now need to relearn the website skills I’d rather smugly thought I’d mastered.
I have been lucky as I spent two of the three lockdowns researching new anthologies, which will be published this autumn. They follow the same format as the three earlier ones with a piece for every day of the year but these two include prose as well as poetry; the Bedside Companion for Gardeners is a mix of the two whilst Nature Writing for Every Day of the Year is entirely prose. I planned to write about both in one post but I have too much I want to say and two posts will serve as a suitable learning curve for the website.
Of the many anthologies I have compiled, this the gardening companion is definitely the closest to my heart. Much of my adult life has been spent working in gardens, pottering in them or sitting in them, either reading or simply appreciating the outside space. Even when I didn’t have a garden I had window boxes and spent much of my spare time reading about gardens and making plans for when I finally had one of my own. Mirabel Osler wrote in her book A Gentle Plea for Chaos that one doesn’t need to garden to garden. I would take the idea one step further and say that one doesn’t even need a garden to garden: you can visit gardens, peer over walls and round fences, make plans for gardens you might have one day and read about them. The aim of this anthology is to satisfy the last of those activities.
I have deliberately mixed fact and fiction, practical advice and wildly impractical ideas, taking pieces from old gardening manuals, children’s books, Roman diaries and science fiction. My intention was that there would be a balance of the different elements but I hunted down the pieces I liked with no real plan. The result was far too much Dickens, too many pieces about mulberries and cottage garden flowers and vast sections from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. A few wild flowers have also crept in but most of these would happily grace any garden given the opportunity. I did a little pruning but decided that most pieces should stay. As a result the anthology is a little like a slightly unruly climbing rose, tethered to its framework and following a proscribed outline but every so often shooting off at a wild tangent.
It is not intended to be a practical manual. Each month I have included practical advice from John Evelyn in 1664, Samuel Orchart Beeton (husband of Isabella) from two hundred years later and others from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Some show how little gardening has changed whilst others seem to have been written with another world in mind. There are pieces about gardening on the moon too – by H. G. Wells and Hugh Lofting.
Many of these pieces are set in time, which is why I have given the date the original book was written or first published and the author’s dates. Styles and opinions in both gardening and literature change over the years, often dramatically. The Romans took a practical approach to gardening but, during the unsettled times of the Middle Ages, gardens in literature were frequently used as a backdrop for lovelorn suitors. As life became more settled, gardening became a practical and useful option for more people and manuals began to appear. One of the first, by Thomas Tusser, was written in verse as he felt the working man would understand and remember poetry better than prose. In the late eighteenth century professional designers began to play an important role in the gardens of the rich. William Kent, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and others were loved and hated in equal measure, arousing passionate feelings and prompting novelists such as Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock to poke fun at their ‘improvements’. From then on, everyone had an opinion about everything. Old-fashioned flowers were charming or outdated, fountains esteemed or unwholesome and some grottos fit only for toads. Shrubberies, temples and topiary have all, at various stages, been in or out of fashion. Some writers intend to be amusing, notably Heath Robinson on poets and Karel Čapek on the dangers involved in watering, whilst others have become humorous as time advances and tastes change. I have tried, but not very hard, to be fair to all sides; I dislike most of Capability Brown’s improvements, love all old- fashioned flowers and like the idea of poets wandering round my garden (in return for a modest fee) in search of inspiration.
I strongly believe that sitting quietly, simply enjoying your garden is as important as any horticultural activity. Without a little work: planting, pruning, weeding, etc. there would obviously be no garden (I am not writing for people who have full-time gardeners) but I agree with W. H. Davies that, ‘What is this life, if full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?’ Although I would take it one step further and recommend sitting. My hope is that, as well as keeping this anthology by their bedside, weather permitting, readers escape from everyday life and take it into their garden, onto their doorstep or beside their window and read it with the beauty of a garden close by, even if the garden in question is a single window box or a pot of herbs by the back door.
Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite
Beyond it, blooms the garden that I love.
From The Gardener’s Daughter
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Bedside Companion for Gardeners is published by Batsford on 14th October, £20
Of course this isn’t an accurate birthday but thirteen years ago my book The Tiny Garden came out in paperback and this witch hazel came into the garden. At the time I expected the witch hazel to outgrow its space within a few years but it has behaved with impeccable, if surprising, restraint and grown to exactly fit the space I have for it.
One cold February day I was told by my publishers that Emma Townshend, who wrote for The Independent on Sunday, wanted to come to the house and interview me about the book. Ecstatic, I said ‘Yes, of course, delighted!’ I put the phone down and panicked. She was coming to see my garden . . . . . with a photographer . . . . .in FEBRUARY. I probably shouldn’t admit this but, much as I love my garden, I rarely spend much time in it between November and March other than to plant tulips and prune the roses. The front garden has all the bulbs as that is the part I walk through every day and is also the part I look out onto from my desk. The back garden has nothing. It has ‘structure’ but in February this consists of two sets of tables and chairs, two benches, a summer house and a lot of empty-looking pots. The perennials are all tucked up asleep in the ground and the annuals have yet to be grown. It had been a mild winter so there was still some trailing lobelia, and a few straggly snapdragons but that was about it.
I realised I needed hellebores and perhaps a decent shrub. A newly-bought Christmas box would be too small, Daphne too expensive and, so I thought, witch hazel too large. I made an emergency trip to RHS Wisley to see what they had flowering. Not much else apart from early bulbs. As I wandered round the nursery area I saw a perfect witch hazel, neatly fanned rather than spreading in all directions. It was Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’ so the scent wouldn’t be great but that didn’t matter as I intended the plant be seen from the kitchen window, forming an airy screen between the main flower bed and the table and chairs beyond. The advice from everyone was that, even in a pot, you shouldn’t try to grow witch hazel in a tiny garden; it would either take over or die.
My ‘Rubin’ has proved everyone wrong. It is now a large fan, providing me with an all-important burst of colour and beauty in late winter, a lovely green screen in summer and another burst of colour in autumn when the leaves turn yellow, orange and russet before they drop, revealing a pretty good structure for the rest of the year.
The hellebore was bought at the same time and, despite its rather indeterminate colour, I’m fond of it. A true survivor, every year it is sat on by tulips in late spring and then smothered by annuals such as cosmos in summer. It lives in a rather unattractive plastic pot which is a useful size but little else to recommend it. I tend to try and hide it in between the front garden fence and the shrubs so the tall flowers are visible but not the pot. A few weeks in February and March are the hellebore’s brief moment of glory.
I reasoned that cake would make up for any deficiencies in the garden so I made my stand-by apple and cinnamon loaf cake. It is easy, delicious and can be eaten at elevenses and tea, or with cream as a pudding. The recipe, along with pear and chocolate and cherry and almond variations, is in my book Orchard, written with Chris, and there are more variations with hazelnut and plum or gooseberry and almond in Nuts: Growing and Cooking and Berries: Growing and Cooking respectively, both written with Sally Hughes. The photo is the pear and chocolate variation which is possibly my favourite variation but it needs pears at exactly the correct moment of ripeness – juicy but still firm.
Luckily Emma and Teena Taylor, the photographer, both liked cake and, to my relief, saw the charms of the garden. You can read the article and see the baby witch hazel here.
I would obviously love you to buy any or even all of my books. But from a real bookshop please, once they’ve been swallowed up by the faceless online giant you might miss them.
This is a month late and the pot in question is not strictly visible from my front window. Well, it is, but only in the way property particulars describe a room as having a sea view that is only actually visible if you hang from the window in a precarious manner.
Every time I go in to or out of the house I think I should do something about the container by the front door. When I moved here twenty years ago I brought cuttings of a beautiful hibiscus I had had in my previous garden. One was planted in this pot, the other directly in the soil. It’s not hard to see which plant is happier. The container is large but it is sheltered by the house so it only gets moisture if the rain is falling at the correct angle. A few years ago I stupidly made the problem even worse by adding an agapanthus to the pot. It looked great with the blue flowers on their long stalks against the pinky-mauve hibiscus flowers but this year the hibiscus has simply refused to flower. The roots of the agapanthus are now growing up through the surface as they clearly have nowhere else to go. After the heatwave and thunderstorms of August a spell of reasonably gentle weather was forecast and I decided that, even though early autumn isn’t the ideal time, I needed to do something quickly before the hibiscus died.
When I finally got the plants out of the pot the problem was clear; it wasn’t a container of soil with plants it was a solid mass of roots, unfortunately completely entwined.
Some fairly vicious hacking and I had a hibiscus and four rooted bits of agapanthus. A drink, some new compost and a few quiet days and they are all looking surprisingly happy. The hibiscus has its own, spacious container, the front door pot now has a (small) escallonia, a manageable hardy geranium and some bulbs for spring and I have a hedge of agapanthus.
Doing Instagram every day has meant that I’ve rather forgotten about our website. But at least I do have a photographic record of what’s been happening in the garden. The grasses in the front window boxes have flourished so I now look out into a shady green paradise. Even on the hottest days my desk only gets dappled sunlight. A passer-by commented that so many plants must make the room dark but I like working in a green gloom, especially when it is so hot outside.
The hibiscus and agapanthus which share a pot by the front door have surpassed themselves this year, flowering more profusely and for longer than usual. My only worry is that they are definitely running out of root space. It is a large pot but not large enough for what are now two substantial plants. A perennial pea winds its way through the mix but luckily that is in a separate container. For several years I have been looking at the main pot and thinking ‘I must do something about it soon’. I think that ‘soon’ is turning into ‘now’. The problem is that their roots have become completely entangled and I don’t want to lose either plant. Perhaps I’ll just top it up with some more potting compost and wait another year.
The view from the kitchen window is a delightful muddle of hardy geraniums, cosmos and last year’s snapdragons. Also though, the first sign of autumn. Every year my witch hazel starts to develop its autumn colouring when the rest of the garden is still in summer mode. I used to worry that it was because the witch hazel was outgrowing its pot, and it probably is, but this happens every year so I have given up worrying. Writing in the midst of a heatwave I long for some slightly cooler weather but I’m not ready for autumn yet.
I am now on Instagram! Well, to be honest I’ve been doing it for a while but I wanted to get the hang of it and, more importantly, establish a routine. As regular readers will know, our posts here can sometimes be a bit erratic. I would obviously love it if you followed me there as well. As I have a little garden in London I decided @alittlecitygarden would be a good title. As with this website it covers all the good things in life: gardening and also reading, making, baking and exploring London and beyond. This is the great thing about having a tiny garden; there is always plenty of time for other things as well. There are also guest appearances from Matilda the cat. I hope you like it.
The view from my desk is lovely – London is almost obscured by plants.
I bought Dutch irises from de Jager on a whim. I’d never grown them before but they were cheap and looked pretty. I shall certainly grow them again. I’d rather forgotten about them so when the first one popped open in the trough by the front door I was delighted. Brilliant blue and bright yellow, standing tall and sturdy, it was a delight. With hindsight I should probably have positioned them with a bit more artistic care but that doesn’t matter, there is always next year and they are now firmly on my Buy Again list.
My garden is so small that I cannot boast a fruit garden but I do grow Japanese wineberries, mulberries and blueberries and, like everything else in the garden, they are clearly visible from my windows.
The Japanese wineberries are beautiful plants and delicious fruits that are almost impossible to buy. The spiny red stems trail against the white walls and, as the fruit is hidden inside until the last minute, birds tend to ignore them. Possibly Matilda patrolling the garden also helps as a deterrent. They ripen successionally, meaning there are enough berries to scatter on porridge or a pudding every day from late June onwards.
The mulberry is Morus rotundiloba Charlotte Russe, ordered from the Chelsea Flower Show in 2017, when it was Plant of the Year. It sits in a pot, is 1.5m x 1.5m and this year has a bumper harvest. Like the Japanese wineberries it really deserves its space in the garden. The fruits are juicy, tasty, beautiful, impossible to buy and I have been harvesting since 30th May.
The same cannot be said of my blueberries. Some years ago a friend was ordering blueberry plants and, as bulk was cheaper, I went in with him. The draw was that some had pink fruits, yes pink blueberries. This was a plant I could not turn down. They arrived as the inevitable twigs and have since grown into straggly, not very attractive bushes. They occupy space on one of my precious sunny walls and, so far, have failed to fruit properly. All this could be forgiven but for the watering regime involved; they don’t like London tap water. I don’t have room for a water butt so, whenever it rains, I put out plastic trays, bowls and basins and then store the water under a bench in old milk bottles. In wet winters this is easy but in dry weather, such as we’ve had recently, I become obsessive. At the first sign of any cloud I rush out with the containers, only to be disappointed later when it turns out the promised shower has bypassed my garden. On the morning of June 5th I was woken at ten to five by the sound of rain. Proper rain: cats and dogs, stair rods, buckets, sheets, torrents. All the words that we had forgotten in May. I had left out four trays but I seriously considered leaping out of bed to collect more containers. By the time I realised this was going a bit far, the rain had stopped.
The blueberries were for the chop, until I discovered that Matilda likes to lie under them on hot days. They are safe for the moment.
In May 2007 I started a gardening diary. The plan was that I would keep an accurate record of which plants did well, successful (or failed) combinations and what I did when. It lives on the kitchen table and I have kept it up, on and off, ever since; although I have to admit that it’s been erratic. The main plan was to learn from it so I wouldn’t repeat my mistakes but, like history worldwide, this is easier in theory than practice. I am still seduced by bulb catalogues and enticing displays in nurseries and I rarely think to consult the diary until it is too late.
Tamsin Westhorpe, author of Diary of a Modern Country Gardener, is more disciplined. Or perhaps more organised would be a better word. I can sit and ramble on for pages one evening and then write nothing for weeks. This delightful book has brief diary entries throughout the year, each followed by reminders of things to do, seasonal plants and amusing anecdotes.
She gardens at Stockton Bury Gardens in Herefordshire – a garden which is 110 times larger than mine and open to the public during the summer. (Well, open during normal summers, as I write it is still closed.) So, at first glance, the diary might not seem very relevant for my garden but Tamsin has an enticing style and the book is full of advice and recommendations that are useful regardless of the size of one’s plot. I have discovered roses and tulips that I want to grow and she has possibly even converted me to they joys of nerines, something that I thought would never happen as I find their bright pinks jarring in amongst the yellows and golds of autumn. The trick seems to be to grow them in a pot, with a green backdrop, rather than in a bed surrounded by autumn colour.
The book starts in February; it was too cold to garden so Tamsin followed the dictates of the weather and wrote rather than gardened. My plan had been to read the book following the seasons but I was enchanted and suddenly I found myself in August even though real time was only April. I felt as if I was wishing my gardening life away, rushing on too fast and missing things, so I stopped. The book now sits on the kitchen table (mostly on top of my diary) and I am reading the entries at the correct time. It requires discipline not to jump ahead but this is definitely the way to get the most enjoyment (and use) from both the book and my garden.
Regular readers of these posts will know how fussy I am about the production of books. Unnecessarily unwieldy paperbacks, hardbacks that spring shut of their own accord and unattractive jackets can all doom a book before I’ve reached the first page. Orphans Publishing have produced a book that is a joy to look at and handle; it has an attractive jacket and charming pink flowery endpapers (of course I judge a book by its jacket and, if possible, its endpapers), it sits open in a well-behaved manner and has a perfect balance of text and pictures. In case you are wondering about their name, Orphans was set up in 1873 by Henry Stanley Newman to generate income for an orphanage and provide a trade for the orphans.
You can order the book direct from Orphans Publishing, at the time of writing they had signed copies. Otherwise please buy it from your local bookshop, now they are reopening, they need all your support.
For the first time in years I’ve had foxgloves in the front garden. I plant them regularly but usually they just sulk. Something was different this year; I don’t know what but I’m very pleased.
It’s often the first flower to open that makes the most impact. Twenty, thirty or even a hundred blooms may be more impressive but it is the first flower to appear that stops one in one’s tracks. This happened when I looked out of the kitchen window on a wet, grey day and saw a flash of pink. The first gladiolus Communis Byzantinus. More will come but it was this particular flower that brightened my morning.
I see why osteospermums or African daisies close up on cloudy days – they really can’t risk getting their petals wet. Many flowers can shrug off a few drops of rain but not these; their pinky-white petals stain and never recover. The plant would clearly rather be in Africa than drizzly London. They were happy all through May but at the first sign of rain their beauty vanished.
Last year I planted five new roses, all from David Austin: Tess of the d’Urbervilles to climb round the front door, Tottering-by-Gently for the bed outside the kitchen window, Claire Austin to mingle with the ivy on the shady wall and climb over the summerhouse and two Ferdinand Pichards, one in the front garden and another in a pot outside the kitchen door. These and my two existing roses (an anonymous pink in the front garden and an unknown multi-coloured climber which drapes itself up and over one side of the summerhouse) all seem happy. The Ferdinand Pichard in the front garden is a bit swamped by my overenthusiastic hardy geranium but in a year or so the rose will rise above it and, for the moment, the geranium is held firmly in place with posts and restraining string. The advantage of having a small garden is that I can see them all from various windows.
Talking to Chris (at the end of a phone), I realise my approach to lockdown has been very different to his. While we share largely common tastes and enjoy doing things together very much, for me the actual viewing of the object/garden/event in situ is much more important than just seeing it on a computer screen, however good the rendering. Looking at the objects virtually has almost no appeal for me. The same is true of visiting gardens; I want to look at the flowers close up, smell them, discuss their merits with whoever I’m with and make a note of ones I’d like in my garden. This sort of behaviour simply isn’t possible on a virtual tour; the camera always seems to stop at the wrong plant, leaving me to scroll back and attempt to enlarge the image of a small flower that was skimmed over. The photos are details from last year’s Chelsea Flower Show that I’m sure I would never have seen if I hadn’t actually been there.
I would be the first to admit that as far as I am concerned the accompanying coffee/lunch/tea, that is obviously impossible on a virtual tour, is also a hugely important part of the whole event: the wonderful tiled cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the beautifully painted restaurant at Tate Britain, the delicious food at the Garden Museum (although for me the garden has lost much of its ramshackle charm since the redesign of 2016-17) and charming cafes at almost every single National Trust garden. Even sitting on the grass on a crowded bank at the Chelsea Flower Show, juggling a vastly over-priced slice of pizza and an exorbitantly expensive drink was something I missed this year.
This is not intended, in any way, to belittle what is being achieved by the gardens, events and galleries at the moment, it’s just not for me. Apart from what I’ve needed for writing, I have been on the internet far less than usual during lockdown. What I have enjoyed, since we’ve had such an amazing spring, is sitting in my garden reading. Even on the rare wet days I’ve simply retreated to the summerhouse rather than shelter indoors.
A Book in the Garden: Garden Design Master Class
I still have piles of unread books in the house but, to be honest they don’t really worry me;
I know there is a perfect time to read any book and one day that time will come for most of these books. For the others I’m happy to keep them ‘just in case’, a simple mention from someone whose judgement I trust could miraculously save the book from its increasingly dusty place at the bottom of the pile. Lockdown for me has been more about rereading rather than new discoveries.
The exceptions are my gardening books. On a couple of occasions I have picked up an unread one and spent a very pleasant hour or so being transported to a garden or gardens outside my own. The first of these books was Garden Design Master Class edited by Carl Dellatore. The subtitle is 100 Lessons from the World’s Finest Designers on the Art of the Garden. Carl Dellatore is based in New York and it is published by Rizzoli, who are primarily an American publisher so, while I knew it would be beautiful, I also suspected that it might be a book I skimmed rather than reading straight through. It is a wild generalisation but I tend to find American gardens a bit too open, lacking the seclusion and privacy I love.
How wrong. It started with Cicero’s wonderful quote: ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need’ so I instantly warmed to the editor. In the end I read the book straight through. The essays were short, just a page or two with a couple of accompanying photos but the perfect length for the writer to make their point. The subjects covered every possible aspect of gardening: Rhythm, Place, Meadows, Height, Annuals, Compost . . . There were Native Plants and Unusual Ones, Mystery & Surprise and Romance. The designers were an international mix with two things in common – they all had interesting opinions and wrote enticingly about them. At first I was infuriated that there was no information at all about the designers but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter; here it was their ideas that mattered and it is easy enough to research most people on the internet now. Many of the ideas are on a scale that is beyond my garden – I’ll never have room for borders or parterres, let alone a pool but none of that mattered, I was transported to other gardens in the company of Dan Pearson, Charlie McCormick, Margaret Brower, Matthew Cunningham and 96 others, and was inspired, not about what I could have in my garden, but by what was in those of others.