Gardening and Gardens

Each Month from my window: late for september and the view from the front door

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.

Jane

Each Month From my Window: July and August

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.

Jane

Instagram: A Little City Garden

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.

Jane

Each Month From my Window: June – Irises and Berries

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.

  Jane

A Book in the Garden: Diary of a Modern Country Gardener

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.  

Jane

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. 

Each Month From my Window: May

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. 

Jane

A Different Approach

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. 

Jane

The Virtual Museum

If we have to suffer this pandemic, we are lucky to do so with the internet and social media to lessen the inevitable limitations of distance and time under lockdown. However, the enjoyment is bitter-sweet in this new waste land of physical absence. April was indeed the cruellest month for all of us who had been prevented from attending the new crop of high quality exhibitions in London and indeed throughout Europe, for the online content was of such quality as to make us thoroughly jealous.

I missed Titian and Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery, Warhol at Tate, Van Eyck In Ghent and Cecil Beaton’s work at the NPG.

All were all showcased to very high standards on the institutions’ web pages, in You Tube videos, on Instagram and many more channels. A You Tube snippet by the Beaton exhibition’s curator, Robin Muir, is fascinating about the artist’s  early years. I had also intended to return to the Royal Academy’s Picasso and Paper so the online video  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOOY6GbV9K) remains a great treat. 

Obviously all museums and not-for-profit organisations are facing huge challenges when deprived of their flow of visitors and funds. The major national museums and art galleries have a tremendous amount to lose from the cancellation of their vastly expensive block-buster exhibitions filled with internationally loaned exhibits, but their scale and resources are such that their survival at least seems guaranteed. Most had already developed their highly sophisticated online activity as part of their marketing and educational roles, and now that is really paying off. The British Museum, for example, offers digital tours of the building. You can go from room by room of the entire building as if an estate agent were showcasing the best features of the collection. There is also detailed access to over 2 million digitised items in the collection. Most of the major public galleries upload new images most days on Instagram with expandable content and links to take you further into the subject if you want. The NPG is, amongst others, very good.

Of course it doesn’t entirely make up for not being there. Obviously we lack the sense of occasion, snacks, cappuccinos, cakes and lovely outings in company! There’s little sense of texture or feel or of sensations such as scent. We are deprived of the complexities of binocular vision that make appreciating any object, and especially a three dimensional one, a much more satisfactory and complete experience. Nor can one easily gain any sense of scale. Those curious striped and banded rulers seen in early photographs of archaeological excavations were there for a purpose. But just imagine how little we would have had to make us jealous even twenty years ago! 

For smaller museums and galleries the current lack of public access might be overwhelming without the support of their friends and patrons. They have responded to engage with them in every way they can. Pallant House Museum (https://pallant.org.uk/) in Chichester, with its focus on twentieth-century British art in general and neo-romanticism in particular, offers an excellent series of online articles, sound-casts, talks and and lectures to its largely regional but very loyal members. Compton Verney, a major but insufficiently visited  museum and art gallery situated in a fine Georgian house and Capability Brown grounds near Stratford-upon-Avon, offers very good compensatory online presentations of its two currently closed exhibitions. These are Lucas Cranach the Elder ( to be found at https://www.comptonverney.org.uk/cranach-artist-innovator/) and Fabric – Touch and Identity accessible through the same site.

So much of this site is based on gardening and so many of our followers are keen gardeners it’s worth a quick look at what’s on offer in this field. It’s a bit early to see  how the idea of NGS garden owners’ videos for virtual visits works in practice but it’s a good idea anyway. Having garden centres and nurseries open again is lovely but doesn’t compensate for losing access to the big shows. Virtual Chelsea on the television is a fascinating use of archive footage but no substitute. However it would have been so much worse not to have tried at all. 

The Garden Museum, without the benefit of any public funding, is in a potentially serious financial condition.   It’s had to postpone its exhibitions  but has kept its members updated with a constant feed of images, catalogues and films available through email letters and its website. Content ranges from the useful, through the informative to the positively surreal. Consider for example: Object of the Week: News from the Cornish Jungle (1953). This promotional booklet was published by The British Bamboo Cane Co., a 40 acre bamboo producers near Bodmin in Cornwall. One of their marketing ploys in the booklet was “Every garden should have a clump of canes”. To add to the sense of improbability the inside front cover contains an image of the then President of the Board of Trade, and subsequently UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson with his wife Mary. Echos of Private Eye and Inspector Trimfrittering perhaps?

Chris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Under Lockdown

Nothing can take away from the horrors of the Coronavirus outbreak and its terrible impact on so many lives. However, for those of us so very lucky enough not to have been directly affected by it and to live in the country with a bit of space there have also been some consolations.

Of course there are many things things one misses. They include meeting friends and extended family, my regular life drawing classes both locally and in London, increasingly a haircut (I’m either not brave enough or too sensible to try myself), getting a watch battery fitted, and visiting museums and galleries.

The compensations have included fresher air, lots of peace and quiet and getting on with some proper vegetable gardening. The old orchard sports several rows of potatoes: after the effort of double digging through years of nettles and brambles they really had to be Pink Fir Apple!

A kind neighbour has loaned us their otherwise unused greenhouse and apart from hundreds of my wife’s Zinnia and Cosmos seedlings, I am growing tomatoes there and have germinated yellow courgettes, Painted Lady runner beans and Cosse Violette climbing french ones. Abandoned nine foot hazel rods discovered off a nearby footpath have been reclaimed (“foraged” perhaps) from the weeds that had started to engulf them and are perfect for a bean frame that really must be constructed in the next fortnight.

To my surprise, many of the unexpected pleasures have been driven by technology and social media. In the past, although I was never Luddite about these matters and was happy enough in Excel if the occasion demanded, I really thought of them as sophisticated screwdrivers. Of course we’ve been posting here on WordPress for years but since we both write books and both garden, including on occasion for other people, that has always seemed a logical choice.

From my pre-virus viewpoint I saw Zoom as an insecure contender to Skype, You Tube a means of curing a foolishly turned on child lock on the hotplate, while Instagram was for posers who wanted to show  off expensive jewellery by the pool side of an AirBandB Caribbean villa. Now these same apps have expanded my world and given me considerable pleasure. 

Instagram drove the first breach in my defences. Our new dog, Polly the wire haired fox terrier, provided the perfect justification for starting her page in lock down (pollyterrier just in case you were wondering, and she does like to be followed and liked!).

Over the coming few days I intend to put up a series of posts about those areas of social media that may also be of interest to other people. The problem in each case, when so much is available, is not what to include but what to leave out. Broadly the first will cover museums and public galleries including exhibitions. The next will deal with commercial art galleries and auctioneers. The last post will cover some of the online resources available to those of us who draw, paint or make things. 

Chris

Each Month from my Window: April

My tulips clashed! I planted Pallada and Negrita together, thinking the colour contrasts would be interesting. Yes, interesting but not in a good way. I’d moved the pot so I could see it from the window where I work and I kept nearly going out and cutting the Pallada to have in a vase in the house. They were very different heights which eased the situation slightly but I shall be more careful next year. They would have looked perfect with something like Princess Irene in between. All was forgiven when they fully opened as their insides were so beautiful.

Partly because the bulbs from de Jager are so reliable and partly because (apart from the aforementioned tulips) I chose carefully, I have achieved succession planting this spring. The daffs came and went, lasting well over three months with Tete-a-Tete, Minnow, a mix of trumpets and Jonquilla Lieke following each other.

Most of the second half of the month was more like summer. Which, in these times of lockdown, made me appreciate my space outside even more. I sat in the garden and realised that the ‘from my window’ may need to become ‘from a seat in the garden’. As I’ve mentioned before my garden is tiny but has five different seating areas: a table and chairs in the sun, ditto in the shade, a bench for elevenses in the sun, a bench for afternoon shade and a summerhouse with a desk and chair which gets the late afternoon sun. Surprisingly I also have room for about forty-three pots, urns and troughs plus a further twenty in the front garden.  I’ve planted these with summer bulbs (crocosmia, galtonia, gladioli, Dutch irises and liatris) and, in the interests of the times and economy I’ve planted more seeds: a selection of sunflowers, most of which were well past their ‘best before’ date, and some baby cucumbers. I’ve also divided my herbs and a Chinese foxglove which Chris gave me years ago and has now grown into eight plants. The opium poppies which germinated last month are refusing to grow – I think the problem may be that I’m moving them in and out so they get light and fresh air but subjecting them to changes in temperature.

The self-seeded Welsh poppies on the other hand, are doing brilliantly; delicate papery yellow and orange flowers popping up all over the garden. I particularly love the sight of the sun shining through the petals. The Allium cowanii weaved their way through everything and the very old rose in the front garden flowered. Even the roses I brought from David Austin last year have buds.

With all that is going on, it is good to have plants happily growing as if all was well.    

Jane