Gardening and Gardens

The Hundred Day Project Day 2: The Terrors of Patchwork

Many people are scared of patchwork because it is so time-consuming, whereas for me that is part of its charm. Each stage is satisfying; you can swap around as the fancy takes you and the little pieces are transformed into pretty shapes remarkably quickly. I tack the individual pieces lazily on one long thread and, as long as they don’t get tangled, they end up looking like lengths of bunting. I also sew the tacked pieces together in sections which again produces satisfying mini patchworks very quickly. This seat cushion involves about 420 pieces. That’s 1,680 sides to tack and 840 two-inch seams to sew. Which sounds intimidating. How much nicer to think of it as thirty-six patched squares that will eventually join up.


Each Month in My Garden: March

March was even madder weather-wise than February; bits were freezing (well, not actually ‘freezing’ in south-west London but very chilly) and now we are having a mini heatwave. I have daffs, chionodoxa, and a few tulips all flowering at the same time. Allium cowanii, which I’ve never grown before has been a massive success. By the time I came to plant them I’d run out of space so I jammed the little bulbs into an already-over full window box. They have twisted their way delightfully in between the existing plants and are the most wonderful pure white. Oh and the kerria has gone charmingly crazy.

For the first time last autumn I bought my bulbs from de Jaeger. In the past I’ve used a combination of Parkers, Sarah Raven and whatever I was enticed by in the local garden centres. Many of the pre-packaged bulbs may seem like amazing value (£5.99 for a huge bag of mixed parrot tulips) but if only a few actually flower they aren’t such a bargain. One particular bargain bag actually worked out at about £3 per tulip and they were all a rather dull red. The de Jaeger catalogue is beautiful and the website is easy to use. At first glance their bulbs may seem expensive but closer inspection reveals that the reasonably ordinary bulbs are no more expensive than most other suppliers; it is the rarer ones that are, justifiably, more pricey. They also stress that the bulbs they send out are larger and therefore more likely to flower well. I opted for a selection of the cheaper cultivars and, for once in my life, kept an accurate record of what I’d planted where. So far I’ve had a one hundred per cent success rate; all the bulbs I planted have flowered.

At first I was rather disappointed that the tulips ‘Negrita’ and ‘Passionale’ appeared identical as the catalogue descriptions waxed lyrical, describing ‘Negrita’ as “warm deep purple, veined beetroot-purple” and ‘Passionale’ as “lilac-purple flamed with deep purple” – no,  they are both just “purple”, a perfectly nice colour but completely lacking the two-tone effects promised. Then I peered inside the open flowers and saw the centres: one blue and the other yellow – all is forgiven; as my garden is very small it is exactly this sort of detail I love.

These tulips are included not because I grew them (they were bargains from my local Waitrose) but because of their resilience. I put them in the vase and much to my disgust within two days they were flopping helplessly all over the place. Close inspection revealed that I’d failed to give them any water. I trimmed the stems, gave them a good drink and by the following morning they were fine, and remained so for another week.



Each Month in My Garden: February, Whoops

I missed February – but not by much and I have a good excuse. Anyone who knows me well knows that the best thing in my life is my cat; a small grey and white tabby called Matilda who came from Battersea Cats Home two years ago. In November she went missing; I got her back last week, after she had spent three months living rough in Wandsworth Shopping Centre (the other side of the River Thames from home).

Her table manners were never good; I think her first owner had fed her from his plate and she never learnt the difference between cat and human food. My previous cat would go out on a hunting trip and return with mice, rats and, on one particularly memorable occasion, a duck. Matilda simply went into local houses and removed whatever was handy: a cooked chicken breast, filled pitta bread, sandwiches (chicken was a favourite, cheese and pickle not so popular). 

I put warning leaflets through all the neighbouring houses and ate with a water spray on the table but never really cured her bad habits, getting wet was a minor problem when the prize was porridge, biscuits cheese or broccoli (yes, broccoli). But clearly this stood her in good stead for surviving on the offerings of Waitrose, Pret, GBK and the like.

 Chris has rightly pointed out that this post is meant to be about my garden, not my wayward pet. Like many of us, my plants were a bit confused by February. At the start of the month everything was lying in wait for warmer weather and then, suddenly, it was summer. Just for a couple of days but it was enough to convince the kerria to blossom hysterically, the hebe to flower and the euphorbia to put on a spurt of pretty pink tips. Even the tulips poked their noses out of their protective leafy coverings; I hope they won’t regret such rash behaviour.

My witch hazel performed beautifully, on time. I bought it twelve years ago and, against all advice, planted it in a pot. I assumed it would outgrow its space and try to take over the garden within a couple of years. Instead it has behaved perfectly, growing into an attractive fan which delights me every spring and then forms an attractive screen throughout the summer.

The moral of which is: do what you want, rather than what you should – most of the time it will work.


Each Month in My Garden: January, Almost

When I first became a member of the Royal Horticultural Society (many years ago) I visited their garden at Wisley each month for the first year. I wanted to make the membership worthwhile but I also wanted to get to know the garden better; I had visited before with friends but had only seen certain areas so my knowledge of the whole garden was a bit sketchy. I did, and it was brilliant. Various unexpected bonuses were that I learnt which plants went well together, which flowered for a long time (this introduced me to gaura, one of my favourite flowers) and which looked good in winter (grasses, which I’d always regarded as  dull). Actually, if I’m honest, I didn’t really succumb to the charms of grasses until a couple of years ago when I filled the front garden with pots of pennisetum, miscanthus and imperator and they created a beautiful airy screen between me and the street.

This year I am going to adopt the same pattern with my garden. Obviously I’m going to visit it more than once a month. I go through the front garden several times a day but I am usually trying to get my bike (old, heavy and a bit unwieldy) into the house so I tend to regard the pots as an obstacle course rather than a display to be looked at properly. The back garden is largely left to look after itself while it is too cold to eat outside. In practice this means all it sees (and I really see of it) are a few bursts of activity between October and April. There is an autumn tidy, which usually takes place in winter, and a few days of bulb planting but otherwise I tend to glance at it through the windows, appreciate that it is there but not really look at the details properly.

All that will change this year; each month I shall post photos of things that are looking good – without cheating and making panic-induced trips to the nearest garden centre to buy something in flower. Not that I’m against a bit of panic buying. Years ago I was being interviewed by a newspaper and they said how nice it would be if we could do the interview in my garden. In February! The panic trip then resulted in hellebores (below) and a witch hazel, which I bunged in a pot, knowing it would outgrow its space in a couple of years. Twelve years later it is still flourishing, has not outgrown the pot and brings me joy each spring. You’ll see it a bit later on.

The more eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I’ve missed the ‘each month’ already. This is because I didn’t think of this idea till the end of January, and then there was the inevitable wait for a sunny day when I was at home. A heavy frost this morning helped, as did an obliging iris, which opened just in time to have its photo taken. I hope, by the end of the month there will be many more.


Repton’s Red Books

This year marks the bicentenary of Humphry  (notably always spelt without an ‘e’) Repton’s death in 1818. Amongst the series of events, talks, walks and celebrations taking place (many organised by, or in conjunction with, The Gardens Trust) is the exhibition Repton Revealed at the Garden Museum. This runs until the 3rd of February and has been sponsored by City and Country, a developer of heritage properties, who currently own the Mansion at Sundridge Park where they are restoring part of the Repton Garden.  They have lent the original Red Book, which they own, for the property as part of their contribution.

The exhibition is a must for garden historians, Repton specialists and the Friends of the Museum. The more the viewer already knows the more valuable it is. It is built up around a core of 24 of Repton’s ‘Red Books’, those beautifully produced, and usually red leather bound, marketing presentations with which he wooed potential clients. Since only around 200 are estimated to survive the presence there of so many is a tribute to the powers of persuasion of Christopher Woodward, the Museum’s Director, his Trustees and staff and the exhibition curator, Professor Stephen Daniels. The books are supplemented by some of Repton’s watercolours, drawings and informative text panels as well as, crucially, by a digital presentation of the Red Book for Armley, a Repton garden near Leeds.

Repton’s marketing technique was as simple as it was effective. After a visit to the potential client’s property, where the socially affable and sophisticated Repton unleashed all his charm, a Red Book would be produced in the same way as a consultancy client would now receive a follow up Power Point presentation. Here a structured series of past and proposed views of the client’s property would be revealed as the owner turned the pages and lifted the flaps on each page of beautiful watercolour. As the Museums’s own publicity states Clients would open the book to see Repton’s delicate watercolours of their garden as it currently appeared, and then would then lift a flap, revealing Repton’s new design for their garden as it could be (provided they paid Repton handsomely to make the design a reality!). As pages are turned, trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, an untidy farm becomes a genteel park, or, as is the case in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced with another, grander manor.  The accompanying text, now somewhat flowery and verbose to modern eyes, would recall the pleasure of Repton’s visit, the natural beauty and potential of the site and the poise and standing of the owner, that could only be enhanced by implementing the proposed improvements.

On account of the fragility of the main exhibits it is a given that low light levels are essential and there is obviously no possibility of actually turning the pages of any Red Book. Herein lies the only problem with this exhibition. For all its strengths it can offer only limited engagement with the essentially dynamic process of viewing a Red Book as a client once might.

Christopher Woodward has pointed out that Repton was a man obsessed with change and speed, whose ideal viewpoint would have been taken from a fast moving travelling phaeton, as frame gave way to frame. He would, he claims with justification have become a filmmaker if born in the last century. It’s equally possible that he would have been a high powered salesman, perhaps of some exotic commodity, supporting his pitches to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals with sophisticated Power Point presentations and embedded video!

The organisers are well aware of this problem and to overcome it have commissioned an 8 minute video and voice over based on Repton’s designs for Armley, a villa then on the outskirts of Leeds. The text of the original has had to be adapted for modern ears but the process of seeing the illustrations appear successively on screen is highly effective and no-one should leave the exhibition without sitting down and watching it. Had more funds been available perhaps the other books could have received the same treatment and been made available to visitors by a link to their phones.This should not detract from the success of the exhibition or deter visitors from seeing it, but it is only right to point out that the problem exists.

An interesting and surprisingly modern sidelight of Repton’s life is his very personal concern for overcoming disability. After a carriage accident which severely damaged his back and left him suffering continual pain,he focused much of his energy on the design of suitable vehicles to get about with limited mobility and planned routes for his clients’ estates that would suit disabled and able bodied visitors alike. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to a man in many ways ahead of his time as well as being a significant input into garden history and a great credit to the Museum. See it if you can.


Front Gardens

I have been walking round Fulham quite a lot lately and I’ve realised that most front gardens don’t contain anything other than a couple of dustbins. The next most common garden style seems to be a single pot containing a dead or dying plant, particularly olive trees. This seems sad when one considers how many of these houses probably have amazing back gardens. Or perhaps they don’t. I don’t like to think of it but perhaps most of the houses in Fulham are simply surrounded by neat but dull paving or slabs of cracked concrete. A brief look in the estate agents’ windows shows that most back gardens do, at least, have a few functioning pots but these may simply be there to help the sale. Everyone knows that, along with de-cluttering and baking bread, you should tidy your garden if you want to appeal to would-be buyers.

I’m not even putting pictures here; it’s too gloomy.

I have always described my house to first-time visitors as ‘the one with all the plants’. This has been true but, until this year, they have mostly been largish shrubs and perennial thugs: Japanese anemones, hardy geraniums, evening primroses, escallonia and winter Jasmine. More delicate plants came, and often went. Watering was a pain and consequently the plants at the front had to survive on less water and less food, less often than their counterparts in the back garden. Those in pots often objected.

This year all that changed with the arrival of The Tap. I have sung its praises before but it’s only now that I am realising the full potential for the front garden. I have just given the garden (front and back) its autumn tidy. Most annuals that haven’t done well so far won’t do anything now and the pots need to be made ready for next spring with bulbs and wallflowers. Doing it I realised how well everything in the front garden has done and, perhaps more importantly, that I can now plant almost anything I like there. This is useful as it faces west and has (by my standards) a largish flower bed which is not used to its best at the moment. There was a hebe which overreached itself and had to be cut down (cuttings are growing well in pots so, in theory, I could repeat the cycle). At present the bed contains a large pink, elderly but brilliant rose at one end, an evening primrose and an enthusiastic pink hardy geranium which has taken over the space and flowered all summer but could happily breathe in a bit.

I’ve moved some pots from the back and have repotted a Chinese foxglove and some English ones into nicer (new) pots and put them by the front door.  I shall also plant more roses: a climber by the door and another shrub in the flower bed. The tap has meant that I’ve gained about a third more practical planting space.

The back garden gives me seclusion but the front provides a beautiful, ever-changing screen between me and the outside world. The table in the bay window is my default place for doing most things and it now looks onto a wonderful plant-filled world. In particular a growing (in both senses) collection of grasses. All cats eat grass occasionally – ideally plain grass. Mine favours ornamental cultivars and last year she kept a previously-flourishing Imperator rubra down to a neat 1 ½ inches. In spring I divided it into two pots and put them onto the front window sill where they grew to a much happier 18 or so inches and glowed brilliantly when the sun shone on them. A fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) sits beside them like a blue hedgehog and screening the next part of the bay is a wafty Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ and a delightfully stripey Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’. I’ve just planted camassias (C. quamash) which I hope will complete the screen next summer. For years I never understood why people liked grasses, now I am completely seduced by their gentle charms.

Working in the front garden is pleasantly sociable. People smile as they walk past and often say how much they enjoy walking past my house. Yesterday a teenage boy stopped. I assumed he was going to ask directions or the time but no, he simply said how much he liked my garden. I could not have been more pleased. For a short amount of a builder’s time and a few pounds my garden is transformed. Before we tell everyone not to pave over their front gardens we should, perhaps, suggest that they install a tap.


A Cloud of Cosmos

Looking out of my kitchen window I see a cloud of dainty white flowers – Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’.  They have flowered brilliantly all summer and now, when many other plants are starting to fade, they resolutely ignore the coming cold and continue their magnificent display. The evening primroses are turning their attentions to seeds rather than flowers, the witch hazel is changing to its autumn colours and the roses and hollyhocks are beginning to fade but the cosmos are behaving as it if is still high summer. The same applies at Fulham Palace, where I go most days to write. Their flower beds are filled with cosmos from pure white to crimson, with every variation in between.

I have a lot of cosmos in my garden, mainly because, each year, I am tempted to try different cultivars but resolutely refuse to give up my stalwarts of previous years. For a few years the permanents have been ‘Purity’, ‘Versailles Red’ and ‘Candy Stripe’. Last year I tried ‘Xanthos’ and this has now joined the ranks of the permanents.

‘Purity’ is beautiful but it is really a bit too tall for my garden where, because of the size, everything is viewed close-up. The flowers are beautiful and the plants airy and graceful but most of the flowers are on wafty stems over 6ft up – and I’m not that tall. I don’t usually like double flowers but this year I’ve grown ‘Psyche White’ which is a semi-double with prettily-edged, pure white petals which look like an eighteenth-century gentleman’s ruff. It grows to a more manageable height of about 3ft, and, although it doesn’t have as many flowers as some of my other cultivars, I think that may be because it was sat on by a neighbouring thug when young (an over-enthusiastic cucumber).

‘Candy Stripe’ is one of the many varieties of pink-and-white or red-and-white cosmos. On a single plant the flowers vary from pink with white highlights to white with the merest hint of pink at the edge of each petal. The snag for me is that, like ‘Purity’, it’s very tall. ‘Velouette’ is shorter and has deeper carmine markings and, with a RHS AGM, might be a good alternative. 

Xanthos’ grows into a bushy, flower-covered plant reaching about 2-3ft and has exquisitely-shaped pale yellow flowers with white centres. The buds are tiny, so tiny that at first I thought they’d never grow into flowers. I snip each flower off just above the next bud and, in a few days, am rewarded with new flowers.  The RHS magazine in August recommended ‘Lemonade’ which is 2ft tall and has similar-coloured flowers but in a simpler single form. Another one to try.

‘Versailles Red’ reaches 3ft and has rich deep red flowers but this year I also grew ‘Rubenza’ which is taller, at 4ft, and has dark pinky-red flowers. The ‘Versailles Red’ petals seem slightly more velvety but that appearance may just be down to the fact that they are in the prime position in my garden; a container by the kitchen door that is in full sun and which I always remember to water. Rather than producing different coloured flowers ‘Antiquity’ has blooms that change colour as they age. The buds open to a deep rich crimson and then fade to a delicate pink, rather like velvet that has been hanging in a sunny window for many years. At only 2ft it is one of the few cosmos that doesn’t need staking. ‘Rubenza’ is another cultivar that fades with age, whilst the ruffled petals of ‘Apollo Carmine’ seem to remain a fabulous deep magenta. I either need a bigger garden or to grow nothing but cosmos next year.



My garden is looking particularly good at the moment, possibly because I don’t have a lawn. A combination of this year’s weather and a more judicious system of watering and feeding the pots (not my usual ‘oh help, it’s gone droopy – I must water’) has meant that everything has bloomed beautifully. My summerhouse was swathed in roses, the windows are screened with charming wafty grasses and there are cosmos everywhere. With the addition of a tap (it’s only taken eighteen years), even the front garden is looking green and pleasantly jungly.

The most noticeable feature of many large gardens at the moment, even after the recent rain, is a huge patch of brown grass. Fulham Palace, where I do most of my writing in the summer, is surrounded by a sea of parched lawn that is only just beginning to regain its green and Putney Common, where I pick blackberries, resembles the African Savannah. I know, once autumn sets in, the grass will recover but, for me, a proper British summer should include lush lawns. Thinking about lawns made me realise that they were what initially made me interested in gardening.

I must have been about five years old when I noticed that there was something wrong with our lawn. Other lawns, particularly those at large houses with cafes and shops attached had stripes. Beautiful straight lines which gave the grass a colour and texture that was singularly lacking in ours. When I asked my parents I was told, ‘Ours is rough grass for you to play on.’ My father added slightly more detail telling me that our lawn was full of weeds and that you needed a special mower to create stripes.

I knew about ‘weeds’; they were the evil plants that grew up in between the roses and had to be pulled up, in their entirety. I looked at our lawn; the non-grass plants mostly seemed to be daisies, buttercups and dandelions. These were useful for necklaces, determining whether someone liked butter and telling the time, so they clearly had to stay. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen stripes and flowers combined but it conjured up a charming image. Also it was clear that digging all the non-grass up would leave a lot of holes and very little lawn. I decided to compromise on the weeds and concentrate on the mower; my parents clearly had the wrong type of machine. My birthday was approaching, so I asked for a lawn mower, being careful to specify that I needed a ‘proper’ one. Delighted, my parents complied – clearly seeing a future in which their small daughter did all the grass cutting.

On the day I was presented with a huge package encased in yards of paper secured with a large bow. On inspection the mower seemed perfect. These were the days before health and safety and my mower was sturdily built of metal, with satisfactorily sharp rotating blades, a detachable metal grass collector at the front and the all-important roller. The grass had been left uncut and I immediately set about creating the perfect lawn, pausing only at the end of each row for a mouthful of birthday cake. The machine cut beautifully, the grass collector filled with sweet-smelling clippings and I envisaged a green sward worthy of the grandest county house. When I’d finished I surveyed the results; the grass was reasonably even and, in places, there were stripes of a sort but it was not the manicured look I’d been expecting. Parental praise and more cake eased the situation but I realised I was going to have to do further research.

Our neighbour’s lawn was flat, pristine and stripey. It was smaller than ours and seemed to occupy all his waking hours but I was undaunted. A little questioning revealed that along with getting rid of the weeds and having the correct mower, I also needed to roll the lawn to make it flat. I’d dealt with the first two problems; well, ignored one and dealt with the other, so I reasoned I’d better now solve the rolling. I looked critically at our lawn and realised it was a bit hummocky. The good news was I knew we already had a roller so I wouldn’t need to wait for another birthday.

Like so many rollers ours languished behind the shed. It looked suspiciously as if it had last been used in the nineteenth century. I cleared away the weeds and surveyed the tool that was going to transform our garden. At first glance I had to admit that it didn’t look promising; there seemed to be a lot of rust, part of the handle was missing and the remainder seemed stuck at a slightly odd angle. Undeterred I washed it and, with a surprisingly gentle push, seemed to straighten the handle. I went to inform my father that I needed his brute strength, at least to get me going. Once started I was reasonably confident I could manage the roller (no, I was not possessed of superhuman strength, merely blissfully unaware of the weight of a rusty Victorian roller). Not terribly keen at the prospect of having his cricket-watching afternoon ruined my father merrily told me we didn’t have a working roller. ‘Oh yes we do,’ I countered, ‘And I’ve washed and fixed it.’ Washed and fixed was not a particularly accurate description of the soap-sudded, rust-encrusted monster that greeted my Dad but some oil and a bit of wood to mend the handle transformed it into an almost satisfactory roller. At this point my parents still clearly thought that a little outlay of effort now would be repaid with a lifetime of beautifully cut grass.

The roller did improve things, although my role was rarely anything more than foreman, directing the now-involved neighbour and my Dad up and down over the worst bumps. By this stage everyone had caught my enthusiasm and the worst of the weeds were removed and replaced with patches of turf. Slowly the area of rough grass began to resemble a lawn. A summer of dedicated lawn care followed, much to the amazement of my parents who had seen other fads come and go. I fed and, when necessary, watered the grass. I marked areas that were ‘not to be walked on’ while the turves settle in. Gradually the ground levelled, the weeds diminished and the grass improved. The final breakthrough came with our refined mowing technique; I went first cutting the grass and Dad followed, creating the all-important stripes which, it turned out, were achievable with our mower. By the end of the summer we had a perfect lawn.

The following year the mowing regime eased slightly and I broadened my horizons and turned my attention to the flower beds. With time I have learnt a more relaxed approach is often better.