Sunday, 30 December 2012

Frosticles

Hankering after a cold snap and thoroughly fed up of mild, windy mush, I’ve been cheering myself along with some images from when winter really was winter. All of three weeks ago.







Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Blithe spirits

The snow has stopped for the moment, though I can see it falling on the downs in the distance. Two pairs of socks and toes still cold, though the rest of me is toasty. In the week since my last visit the tree surgeon has been and removed the dying birch which I had noticed had been rotting away at the base. One of triplets, the remaining pair stand together surveying the low stump with apparent detachment, anaesthetised to their loss. It doesn’t look quite as bad as I had feared, but slightly downhill from where their sick sibling once stood these two appear as though they might drag the green covering of lawn from off the top of the garden. Balance will need to be restored, and a post mortem carried out on the stump.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Tree time



The first weekend in December, ringing in Advent, and with it, winter. The Christmas tree was bought from the nursery up the road, crammed into the car and – thanks to the help of the good friends we’d invited over – hung with baubles and lights. This is clearly the way to decorate your tree, and I can heartily recommend the following method: assemble the necessary equipment (one tree, one set of LED lights to avoid traditional bulb faffing, one quantity of decorations of dubious taste and unashamed cheer), provide food and drink, and stick them all in a room together with some cheesey music. And Robert, I predict you’ll find, is your Auntie’s signifcant other.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Passions and parrotias

There’s a garden that I look after which has it all. A sunken patio surrounded by cottage garden beds, clipped evergreen shrubs, lichen covered stone and a large pond complete with jetty, still water reflecting the ghostly white stems of birches standing tall and silent at the edge. Beyond the artfully hidden compost bins the end of the garden disappears into mature oak woodland. The whole place is quite magical, so much so that in all honesty the prospect of tending it might have proved too much for me to bear had not the previous gardener moved out of the area. A fortuitous day indeed – certainly for me. And, who knows, perhaps also for him. That jetty can be quite slippery.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Cloth of Gold

Lunchtime, and the sun is still trying to burn off the morning haze. Slight breeze, russet tones, mushrooms. Smell of woodsmoke and the burnt-sugar tang of leaves on bonfires, like an unattended candyfloss stall.

Autumn.

Distilled down, these are among the ingredients that would yield the essence of the season; a time of year which would be perfect were the days that bit longer. But it’s this very same reduction in daylight hours which plays a crucial part in creating one of the quintessential features of autumn, as the production of chlorophyll slows down in the leaves of deciduous plants and greens fade to rich oranges, yellows and browns. It’s odd to think that these carotenoid pigments are present all year round, but that only now, without the masking effect of the green, do we get to enjoy them in all their glory.

At first, this change takes place in the vertical plane, as trees and shrubs extract those nutrients from the leaves which they will store overwinter in the permanent framework of stem, branches and roots. Then, no longer of use and containing only unwanted sugars and other carbohydrates, the leaves begin to fall, gradually occupying a more horizontal orientation, until the whole world seems carpeted in an opulent tapestry. Reason enough to venture outside – wellie-clad, shuffling through piles of crisp, spent foliage. Or armed with a rake, creating lines and heaps for gathering up and cramming into bags which in twelve months time will contain the best, most crumbly soil conditioner imaginable.

But that is some way off. For now we have leaves to tame. And to steep ourselves in autumn before winter robs the world of its colour.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Great Dixter

On the way to Rye, less than an hour away from here, there lies hidden in a corner of the village of Northiam one of my favourite gardens. This is Great Dixter, the home of the late Christopher Lloyd – colourful, influential, and sometimes controversial gardener and writer who created a very unique garden at his family home. Looked after since his death in 2006 by a charitable trust, the gardens continue to inspire and evolve under the guidance of Christo’s head gardener, Fergus Garrett. From the moment you approach the medieval facade of the house along the path through the wild flower meadow at the front, you know that you’ve arrived somewhere special, and the rest of the garden doesn’t fail to deliver on the promise.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Dahlia envy

Mid September, and once again I’m struck by the knowledge that I’ve failed to plant enough dahlias this year.

There’s nothing subtle about a dahlia. Subtlety, after all, is not what you really want in the garden towards the end of summer, when everything’s been madly growing all year, when the beds and borders are jam-packed with plants that are either just reaching their best, or just gone over, or long past their best and sprouting crazily from every bud because it’s what they do and they can feel the days are getting shorter and want to make the most of every sun-kissed photon before winter robs them of the warmth and the light they need to grow. Against this crazed backdrop you need something that will stand out.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Genius loci

Every once in a while – if you’re a person who values the process of thinking – it’s no bad thing to be exposed to that which has the power to stop you in your tracks. A positive encounter which threatens to reeducate you, tweaking your view of the world in some way to make an allowance for something significant which until now you hadn’t so much as imagined. Last week’s visit to the gardens of Rousham House in Oxfordshire was for me an experience of that order, to the extent that it’s taken me a few days to be in the position to be able to write about it. And even now I’m not convinced I have the words to convey the wonderment of this garden and this place. But I’ll give it a go, and when words won’t do the job, pictures will have to.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Blackberry time

All year long – and with last winter being relatively mild it really has been all year – I’ve been battling against brambles. Over the last few weeks the first year stems which will produce fruit next season have been growing away lustily, and in less manicured areas monstrous tentacles thick as a thumb have appeared, thorns snagging skin and clothing alike. But, for a few weeks at least, the time has come to relax about this unwelcome garden rambler.

It’s blackberry time.

The common blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) eschews the discipline and erect habit of its more civilised cousin the raspberry, choosing rather to lounge about in unruly fashion and scramble over anything in its way. Likely as not it also puts its feet up on the sofa, speaks with its mouth full and leaves its underpants on the bathroom floor. But it does possess the distinct advantage of requiring neither planning nor dedicated garden space, as it inserts itself at will and grows wherever it fancies. For those without gardens, or with gardens from which every bramble has been eradicated, a surfeit of free fruit is only as far away as the nearest hedgerow.

So whether yours are destined to be made into jam, used as an extra shot of flavour in a fruit crumble, a key ingredient of a delicious summer pudding or just crammed greedily into your mouth straight off the plant, dripping juice down your chin and still warm with the sun, this time of year provides a great reminder of simple pleasures. Free food is about as good as it gets.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Devilishly handsome

Late July in the garden, and summer is most definitely here. I leave our little courtyard – through the trellis, stooping low under the arching, overladen stems of the pheasant berry Leycesteria formosa – to be confronted by the strident scarlet of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, jarring nicely with the flowers of the lavender that borders the path. I love how this plant single handedly provides a magnificent boost to the garden at this time of year. Some relief is provided by its fresh green leaves, together with a background hedge of forsythia and mahonia, with the purple smoke bush Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ and the wheaten tones of the tall grass Stipa gigantea – but the overall effect is anything but subtle and, I think, all the better for it.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Before the heat

Verbena bonariensis against a background of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’

 
In the cool, fresh air of the morning, as the sun gathers its strength for another day baking us till our skins feel fit to split like sausages, I spend far too long trying to capture the diaphanous cloud of pollen that floats away whenever the deschampsia is brushed against. I give up. You need three hands for this task, or at least a tripod, and I have neither.

So I settle for an early morning picture of the flower spike which the acanthus has deigned to elevate above its rampant mound of deep green, spiny leaves. Magic.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Hampton Court Flower Show 2012

Much to think about following Sunday’s visit to Hampton Court. As always, the grounds were packed full of wonderful plants in beautiful condition, and happy plant shoppers trundling their purchases on folding box trollies, and although the going was a bit soggier than usual, this didn’t seem to put people off. Also represented were the usual array of garden furniture, lighting, tool and accessory companies – you can spend hours pottering and a fortune if you’re not careful, but it was really the gardens I had come to see. I’d purposefully avoided coverage of the show on the television this week as I was keen to approach the gardens without any preconceptions, and didn’t even make use of a map.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Glove affair

I freely admit it. I am not man enough to garden without gloves. It’s therefore a bit of a mystery to me why my hands manage to get quite so grubby and gnarly – obviously I can wave the wizened things about as a sort of gardener’s badge of honour, but it’s a different matter when the mere sight of them causes passing children to run off in tears and the bloke at the supermarket checkout to recoil in horror on handing over your receipt.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Hole Park

To the rather posh Hole Park near Rolvenden for the Wealden Times Midsummer Fair at which, disappointingly, nobody got murdered and Inspector Barnaby failed to appear. But then someone pointed out that the spelling was entirely different and so this rather awful joke doesn’t work anyway. Most disappointing. The fair was a pleasant way to spend a few hours though (Bill enjoyed being made a fuss off). We look forward to going back in order to explore the gardens, the only part of which we were able to see on this occasion was the impressive formal lawn and pond, with accompanying yew topiary, including some fairly (and surely inadvertently) rude shaped specimens at the end of the terrace, unfortunately just out of frame in the above photograph. Rude Topiary, surely there’s a market for a coffee table type book on the subject?

Bill eyes the rude topiary, unimpressed.

Plant rescue

I’ve collected a few waifs and strays over the past week, with the intention of bringing them home and nursing them back to rude health. Whether or not their actual fate will see them consigned to an obscure corner of the garden and left to fend for themselves only time will tell, but the intentions are honorable, and the chances of seeing the thing through appear better than average as they’re all plants I’ve been keen to introduce here anyway.

Plant number one was not so much a waif as a child of cruel neglect, rescued from an otherwise very good nursery in Maidstone where I found it nestling between specimens in finer fettle. It’s a hardy geranium, a cultivar of the dusky cranesbill Geranium phaeum, the Mourning Widow. A native of European woodlands it’s quite happy in dry shade, which makes it useful as well as attractive. Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ sports mid green leaves with a dark port wine stain. It’s notable for tall, delicate flowers on which, unlike most hardy geraniums, the petals are reflexed – held backwards – exposing the rude bits of the flower to all and sundry. Inappropriate behaviour for a mourning widow you might say, but each must be allowed to deal with grief according to their own fashion.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Old Nick’s porridge

If there was a plant star of the show at Chelsea this year the award must go to Cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris. This didn’t so much sneak its way into just about every garden as proudly proclaim itself a key part of those schemes in which it appeared. On the television coverage designers like Andy Sturgeon could be heard extolling the virtues of the ‘umbellifer’ – basically a big carrot. In the kitchen garden dill, fennel and angelica all fall into this group, although it’s not a genetic classification but a description of how the plant holds its flowers; in ‘umbels’ (an umbrella-like structure). Cow parsley is similarly classified, and while the posh red version Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Raven’s Wing’ was in evidence, it was the humble species which we know from our country lanes and hedgerows that seemed most popular, and with good reason. Six weeks ago, clumps of delicate, fern-like foliage could be seen nestling on the ground, glowing lush green in the damp undergrowth where they’ve been bulking up since last year (Cow parsley is a biennial). Then seemingly overnight, aided by record rainfall and then unseasonable sunshine, the plants achieved a height of about a metre, sometimes more, topped with a froth of delicate, creamy white flowers.

Friday, 25 May 2012

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2012

The sun came out for Chelsea this week, baking hot on Tuesday when I visited the show on the day the medals were announced.

There was a tremendous amount going on, and it was good to see an awareness of the the environmental impact of gardening, with a noticeable emphasis this year on water conservation, drought tolerant plant selection and naturalistic styles of planting, although it was evident from overheard comments that, to a significant number of onlookers, the designers’ painstaking attempts to recreate romantic meadow effects were often interpreted as patches of weeds – “there’s a bit like that in my garden behind the shed!”. I thought it was rather lovely, but that’s the challenge for the garden designer keen to promote this aesthetic with all its environmental, bee-friendly worthiness, when many clients just want things to look neat. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

You don’t know Jack

Garlic mustard, or Jack in the Hedge (Alliaria petiolata), glowing white and emerald green following a downpour. It’s everywhere at the moment. Find it popping up alongside pavements and in the hedgerows, obviously loving the wet weather and growing away quite vigorously, although not as uncontrollably as in North America where, following its introduction for culinary use in the nineteenth century, it’s become an invasive pest. Like the nettle which it superficially resembles – and in whose company it can often be found – it has a square stem, but the emergence of the vertically-held seed pods after the flowers point towards its true placement in the brassica family, reminding me of canola (the rapeseed plant), a solitary specimen of which occasionally escapes from the fields and appears in similar locations. I’ve yet to introduce it to my own herb patch, or anyone else’s garden for that matter, but I wouldn’t rule it out in the creation of a wild, naturalistic effect, perhaps in the company of cow parsley and a deadnettle or two.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Goosegrass

It was probably inevitable that declaring a hosepipe ban would usher in weeks of heavy rain. After all, it is April. And if there’s one plant in particular that I’ve noticed making the most of the wet weather and romping through every garden, it’s goosgrasss. I spent most of Friday afternoon gardening up to my elbows and, at one point, ears in the stuff (I should point out that I was lying down in order to weed under an awkward cornus – it’s rampant, but not that rampant). Galium aparine is known by many other names; in addition to goosegrass, perhaps most commonly cleavers, but also stickyweed, catchweed, coachweed, bedstraw (from its historic use as a matress stuffing), robin-run-the-hedge and, of course, sticky willy. Though I’m much too mature to find that particular epithet even remotely funny.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Mini orchard



The apple trees are planted – a milestone in our home. We’ve always known where we wanted them but somehow, with a rundown house to renovate, garden buildings to erect, borders to fill with flowers and the kitchen garden to fill with annual veg, it always slipped to the bottom of the list. Which is a shame because planting fruit trees really should be one of the first things you do when you move into a new house, partly for the practical reason that it will take a year or two before they bear fruit (the maturation period depends on the vigour of the rootstock; larger trees take longer to achieve their productive potential), but mainly because there’s nothing better than planting a fruit tree to make you feel as though you’ve put down roots. Quite literally.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Grow Your Own


I’m not a particular fan of the phrase ‘Grow Your Own’. Partly because it sounds like an instruction rather than an invitation (‘Have a Nice Day’ is similarly annoying), and partly because it sounds like something a particularly mean-spirited neighbour might bark at you across the garden fence after being asked if he could spare the odd brussel sprout from his massive glut of home grown produce, quite possibly preceded by an equally unfriendly invitation to ‘naff off’. But however I might feel about the term there’s no gainsaying a phenomenon which has seen an unprecedented increase in the demand for allotment space whilst providing a significant revenue stream for the publishing, horticultural and home improvement industries for the past few years. I do wonder, though, is it all marketing flim flam, tapping into our desire to escape from the rat race to live the good life but never really getting any further than Tom and Barbara, or is there really something of enduring substance behind the hype?

Monday, 26 March 2012

Final appearance


This weekend I finally got into my own garden to remove last year’s spent flowering stems, left standing over winter to provide some vertical interest and catch a dusting of frost when it visits. Sunflowers, rudbeckia and honesty, golden rod, echinacea, and straps of crocosmia leaves with jewel-like red seed bursting their pods. Recently, with bright green spring bursting out all around, their dun informality has seemed out of place. But a wheelbarrow full of them still makes for a pleasing show as they put in their final appearance, en route to the bonfire heap.



Thursday, 15 March 2012

Dry spring

Fresh green buds breaking on the red stems of the dogwood Cornus alba 'Sibirica'

Mid March, unusually mild, and the sap is not so much rising as erupting, surging upwards through stem and branch and twig and rousing every bud it passes from its winter lethargy. With the exception of two days at the beginning of the month we’ve been spared the usual bitter winds, but we’ve also had yet another dry winter, with precious little rain forecast for the rest of the month.

But it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom for those who love their gardens.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Digory receives a sign


It’s high time I introduced a key member of the grow team. This is Digory, our twenty year old Land Rover, named rather appropriately by Emma after a character in The Magician’s Nephew who plants an apple and grows a magical tree. After many months of searching we discovered him on new years day last year, which we took as a very good omen for the business that was to launch a few months later.

Undoubtedly possessing the perfect combination of practicality and country charm to represent us on the roads, he was until last week a little anonymous and, well...naked. And so with the help of talented friend Charlotte who created our wonderful logo and looks after all of our branding, we decided it was time to have Digory signwritten.

Throughout the process, I managed to be somehow simultaneously incredibly thankful for Charlotte’s previous experience applying vinyl graphics to Formula 1 cars, and also rather worried about the dubious skills of her assistant. Thankfully, in the end  the results are even better than we had imagined!

Look out for us on the roads around Sevenoaks and Hildenborough, and give us a wave!

The moment of truth – the first sign to go on! 
The dubious assistant tries his hand. Best leave it to the expert, beardy!

Charlotte puts the finishing touches to the side panel

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Bramley Apple Week


I’ve just found out that it’s Bramley Apple Week this week. Quite why this should be in February when any half sensible apple tree will be in the middle of a well-earned winter snooze I’ve not the faintest idea, perhaps the autumnal apple harvesting calendar is chock full of national awareness days for other seasonal varieties, and the nation’s favourite cooker had to take the first free spot. Whatever the reason, if you’re lucky enough to have a Bramley apple tree in your garden and were conscientious in storing your harvest, you can still be enjoying the fruits into spring. And if not, there’s always the farmers market or the greengrocer...or even (whisper it!) the supermarket.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The white stuff

Bill’s first brush with the white stuff: I’m sure the garden’s under here somewhere...

Europe shivers, while for us in Kent this weekend brought the long expected snow. Several inches fell on Saturday night, and that would appear to be it for now. After several winters of much worse, this time I think everyone was ready for it.

Having shaken the worst of it off the bamboo (or anything else that might not welcome the sudden extra weight), there’s little else that can be done in the garden while it’s with us. Except, of course, to enjoy it.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Hedging your bets


There are several wise things said concerning he who plants a tree. (Never, you’ll notice, ‘she’ who plants a tree. One can only assume that ‘she’ is off mowing the lawn, weeding the borders, digging the potatoes and pruning the wisteria while ‘he’ has spent the last three hours just digging a big hole, sticking a tree in it and standing back to admire his handy work.) All things considered – excepting the suspect gender bias – the sayings are justified, for a tree is about as wonderful and awe-inspiring a thing as you can get, and to plant one is an act of generosity and hope for the future. But I have to confess to feeling slightly put out that posterity doesn’t seem to have bothered itself with preserving any choice epithets on the subject of they who plant hedges. Because, when all is said and done, what is a hedge apart from rather a lot of trees planted closely together? Of course, an individual plant within a hedge will never grow to the same stature as one of the same species grown as a standard tree – you’d never be able to sit in its shade, build a treehouse in its canopy or hang a swing from its limbs – but that's not the point. A hedge is a living illustration of the thing which is greater than the sum of its parts – it has to be more than a lineup of stunted trees, which sounds horrid, or we wouldn’t bother with the hedge at all.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Something rich and strange


Arrested by the heavy, soporific perfume of the Christmas Box, Sarcococca confusa, as I make my way into the garden today. It reminds me that I had intended to write a post this week on this wonderful addition to the winter garden but was beaten to it by Alys Fowler’s excellent piece in the Guardian.

He who snoozeth, loseth, as someone once wrote; Shakespeare, probably. So I’ll have to be content with uploading a photograph and cutting myself a few fragrant twigs to bring into the house.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

In, or out?

A ferocious wind has been blowing for the last few days, strong enough to tear off branches and throw trees to the ground. January doing its best to make an impression, for ordinarily this is a time of year marked by anticlimax – following on as it does from sparkly December and all the excitement of Christmas – cold, dark and grey. And while it’s true that you could spend scarcely a thought for your garden this month and suffer few consequences for the rest of the year, that would be a shame. There is work to be done now, whether outside muffled against the weather, or inside by the fire, marshaling resources for the year to come. This is the time for ordering seeds, for cleaning tools and forcing rhurbarb, sowing sweet peas and planting fruit trees, for moving shrubs and for establishing hedges.

Above all though, this is the time for new resolutions, for planning or – better yet – for dreaming of what the garden will be. You can’t do the planning until you’ve done the dreaming, so you should allow yourself the luxury of indulging your imagination this month. Books or magazines, blogs and articles in the lifestyle section of the weekend papers all provide a wealth of material for inspiration, helping you to picture how you want your garden to be, to look and, just as importantly, to feel, over the months to come.

A good enough excuse, should you want it, for staying indoors.