Gardening and Gardens

Each Month in my Garden: May

It seems hard to remember that May was warm, and sunny, and really rather nice. But my photos prove it was, and the Chelsea weather was perfect. The garden performed brilliantly with, it has to be admitted, not that much help from me. I’m worried that the pink rose in the front garden (unknown, fragrant, flowers from May to Christmas but already old when I moved in nineteen years ago) may be on its last legs. It has always had too long a main stem so I can’t cut it back properly. This year it sent up ridiculously long shoots which swayed hysterically in the wind and, in several cases, snapped. Now it’s finished its first flush of flowers I’ve deadheaded it quite hard in the hope that the next batch of flowers will be at eye-level rather than reaching for the roof.

Also in the front, the geraniums – hardy and otherwise were lovely, especially when viewed close-up.

In the back garden it was all a bit shaggy but the aquilegias flitted about like little coloured aeroplanes, the Welsh poppies seeded themselves charmingly all over the place and the red valerian managed to stand up reasonably straight. Only the blueberries sulked, which is unreasonable of them as I repotted them, religiously save rainwater for them and give them more tlc than most of the other plants put together.

Even so, all in all it was a really good month.


The Hundred Day Project Day 61: It’s Summer

For me summer is driving with the roof open (and not having to have the heater on and wear a coat, scarf and gloves), wearing plimsolls and using the summerhouse. It (the summerhouse) is small, old and ramshackle, and takes up a lot of premium growing space (where the sunniest beds would be) but I absolutely love it. From now until autumn I shall write, make, read and sit here whenever I can. It is never too hot and gets the evening sun as it sinks down over the roof of the house. I have to share it with seedlings, deck chairs and Matilda but all that adds to its charm.
















The Chelsea Flower Show 2019: NEW DISCOVERIES & OLD FAVOURITES

Californian poppies were everywhere (The Greenfinger Garden, The Wedgewood Garden and all over the Great Pavilion); they are delicate, Ivory White is particularly nice, they seem to go with everything (in particular Orlaya grandiflora) and Monty Don photographed them so they have the ultimate seal of approval.

I’m not sure whether I like Eqisetum hyemale (The M&G Garden and The Resilience Garden) but it’s very interesting in a sort of meercat-popping-up way.

There were fancy foxgloves on The Resilience Garden; short, robust, deep red and fabulous. Research revealed they are Digiplexus (a cross between ordinary purple foxgloves and Canary Island foxgloves), so very fancy, and I want them.

The Snow-Melt Garden had brilliant red and green Chenopodium, which I grew years ago and had forgotten about, and charming yellow Trollius, which I’ve never grown and now want. Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden was a lesson in how to combine perennials; cornflowers and gladioli, and salvia and verbascum aren’t earth-shattering discoveries but they would look marvellous in my garden (if I ever manage to create space).

There were pretty lights in the trees of the Dubai Majlis Garden, a metal kite flying merrily over the showground and a flower-covered van selling St-Germain elderflower liqueur, a truly delicious drink, especially when mixed with rose and fizzy water. 

There are plants I have written down so many times at Chelsea it’s become a joke: the hydrangea Fireworks Blue with its starry flowers, the majestic-looking rose Souvenir du Docteur Jamain and the wonderfully stripey tulip Carneval de Nice. I don’t have room for the first two but there is no reason why my garden shouldn’t be awash with red-and-white tulips next spring. I love alliums but never seem to grow enough. Early Emperor and His Excellency are my current favourites, along with the rather sweet mini ones – Little Den and Powder Puff.

Lastly, the stand I always love is the Stone Balancing display by Adrian Gray. He makes seemingly impossible sculptures by balancing stones and fossils. It sounds simple as everything must have a point of balance but I’ve tried with small stones and, whilst amazingly therapeutic and ultimately very satisfying, it is incredibly hard. His sculptures have an air of mystery about them as they stand serenely amidst the hubbub of the flower show.


The Chelsea Flower Show 2019: The Gardens

I had planned that this post would be very disciplined: one garden, one plant I had discovered and one other thing. Within minutes of arriving at the show the plan went awry; there were too many things I liked and I had completely forgotten about the plants I see every year, note down to grow and then promptly forget about till the next year. There were so many things I liked I’ve split them into two posts. Firstly, here are the gardens.

Andy Sturgeon’s M&G woodland garden was the first one we looked at and at first I thought ‘Yes, fine, green, dull, burnt-oak ‘rock’ sculptures’ (I like flowers and I’m rarely keen on large sculptures of any type). Then I looked properly and discovered the magic of the garden. Pale green new growth against the dark rocks, greens in every shade, shape and texture you could imagine. And the most magical path I have ever seen on any show garden. If I remember one thing from this year’s show, it will be wanting to wander down that path and discover the magic that was surely waiting at the end.

The newish category of Space to Grow Garden had my other real favourite. The garden was called Kampo no Niwa and showed a system of South East Asian herbal medicine based on garden plants. For me it was The Snow-Melt Garden. The two designers come from Hokkaido in northern Japan and a stream of melt-water fell gently down the wall and round the seating area. Impractical as it may be, I have always wanted a moated patio in a garden (the fact that, in my garden, this would involve flooding the kitchen has, so far, restrained me from putting my plan into action). The stonework was lovely and the planting beautiful, with ‘streams’ of violas. I didn’t like the wooden pavilion much but you can’t have everything.

The Donkey Sanctuary garden looked rather like a piece of Provence but for me that was no bad thing. And clearly everyone else liked it as it won the People’s Choice award for the Artisan Gardens. There was a garden with a lovely old Morgan, Mr Ishihara had provided his trademark staggering attention to detail, a forgotten and rusted quarry garden showed me how beautiful oranges can be and Sarah Eberle’s Resilience Garden had a wonderful meadow, and thrift charmingly nestled on the steps.

For some years now there have been fewer sponsors prepared to spend the huge amounts involved in creating a show garden; last year I read that they cost a minimum of £2-300,000 and can require up to £1 million, presumably the figure this year is proportionally higher. Fewer gardens don’t necessarily mean less to look at and the Royal Horticultural Society had filled the gaps with gardens that weren’t judged, a bit more space round the Artisan Gardens (which was a huge improvement as it meant you could see them properly) and a few installations. One of these was the letters RHS sitting in a piece of ‘Scottish meadow’ with a ‘crumbling’ wall and ‘wild’ animals. Close up the wall was made of decidedly un-crumbling fibreglass and the animals weren’t all instantly recognisable but the planting was lovely. I doubt it would have been awarded a Gold Medal but it was an attractive gap filler.


Each Month in my Garden: April

Last month I wrote about de Jaeger bulbs. Most of my bulbs have now flowered and I am convinced; they are the place to buy bulbs. Hardly any blind ones and only a couple of short, weedy ones and the flowers have lasted brilliantly. The purple tulips (Passinale and Negrita) lasted for ages and then faded gracefully, as did Spring Green. The parrot tulips were stunning as individual flowers but I bought a mixed pack, which I think was a mistake. They came up at very different heights and, if I’m honest, looked a bit of a mess. Next year I’ll just choose one cultivar, probably Estella Rijnveld, which I love for its name as much as for its crazy red, white and green petals. I have no idea who the original Estella was and a hunt on the internet has revealed that the tulips are also sometimes called Gay Presto, which I think suits them rather well.

The miniature daffs (Minnow and Rip Van Winkle) were lovely and the taller daffs (Jonquilla Lieke) lasted well. My only slight quibble with the tall daffs was that they hung their heads a bit but Sarah, my neighbour, pointed out that they probably did that so Matilda, the cat, got a better view of them.

The undoubted stars are still Allium cowanii. They have weaved their way between other plants, are the most beautiful pure white and last for ages. And they were a bargain. I think they look best in raised containers in between dark green evergreens which contrast against the pure white and hide the rather messy leaves. I squashed the bulbs around little hebes in a window box and the end result was (more by good luck than good management) completely perfect.

If the cat has a fault, it is that she eats grass. Not ordinary lawn grass, I could forgive that, but my pretty ornamental ones. Two years ago she kept my Imperator rubra neatly trimmed to two inches. I moved the grasses to the front garden (where she wasn’t allowed) and they flourished. This spring I thought the imperator was slow to get going and then I saw Matilda, on the front window sill, neatly biting it back to the required two inches. Slightly embarrassingly, my neighbour’s grass has ‘stopped growing’ too. I tried to blame too much/too little water/sun/nutrients but then Matilda was caught red-pawed tucking in. Adopting a stick and carrot approach I sprinkled pepper on the forbidden plants and bought Matilda her own grasses. The nursery was waiting for Imperator so I bought Briza media Limouzi and Festuca glauca Intense Blue. So far the plan seems to be working although I hope Matilda gives the plants time to settle in before she trims them too rigorously.

And even though most of my pots were still empty, and the ivy slightly out of control, I had breakfast in the garden, several times.


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.