Sunday, June 24, 2007
Gardens open to the Public – St Catherine’s Hospice at HurstpierpointIt’s a sad fact that my idea of a great time is to poke around other people’s gardens! Of course if you do that without permission you end up explaining yourself to the local constabulary but once or more a year, many long-suffering, green-fingered, generous-minded folk feed my addiction to other peoples’ herbaceous borders by opening their gardens to the public.
On Sunday, braving the rain and almost gale force winds, 'himself' and I set out for a tour of Hurstpierpoint, a village not too far from us, but which we’d only ever driven through. And what a difference we found to our rather unwelcome afternoon in Worthing recently! The open day combined allotments and private gardens, and we were enthusiastically greeted in every place we visited, given tons of information (one kind gentleman even went and looked up a plant name for me, in The Plantsman – greater love hath no gardener for his garden than to lay down his copy of Plantsman in the rain for a stranger!), purchased an excellent tea ('himself' had fruit cake and I had a fresh cream meringue), and bought some unusual and high quality plants which I’ll describe in detail later.
Partly because of the weather, which was vile, but partly because I’m a nosy soul and take twice as long to get around as anybody else, we only managed to visit a few of the gardens that were open, so we’ll have to go back next year. And over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring each one in greater depth. The photograph shows the last of the four gardens we visited – what I’d call a true plantsman’s garden. It’s a small rear garden, and the notable features are the intelligent and imaginative plantings that combine texture, colour and structure to give the eye a complex, but perhaps not restful, experience. To offset the drama of the plants, all the garden structures have been painted a matte green – you can just see one of the five seating areas in this small garden at the back of the photo, a gazebo with a fold up table and chairs – and have been placed in different areas of the garden, each with a clear focal point. You can see the carex grasses at the front of the photograph which soften the edges of the path, and make a nice foil to the orange and red shades of kniphofia behind, which are in turn offset by small-leaved shrubs that allow the sword-shaped foliage of the kniphofia to contribute to interest in the garden, even after the flowers have gone over.
What’s most impressive about this garden, apart from the obvious care and attention needed to maintain it, is the way each plant’s location contributes to the overall plan, rather than being a specimen plant that draws the eye and forces its neighbours into the background.
Should you have the chance to visit the ‘Secret Gardens of Hurstpierpoint’ and explore them for yourself, I can’t recommend it too highly – until then, you’ll have to wait for me to dribble out the information over the next few weeks!
Friday, June 22, 2007
Gardening in the newsThere’s another good reason the Scots are heavier than the rest of us – it’s not just their rather fat and sugar heavy diets, it’s because they have more in their wallets and get less exercise! What does this have to do with gardening – well, the average Scottish gardener spends only £77 on their garden each year, compared to those in Wales, who are each expected to spend £278 on average on their gardens, while the average outlay across the UK stands at £175.
According to this research, British homeowners spent around £4 billion on plants, furniture and gardening equipment in 2006 and – in part – this boom in garden improvements is being driven by the trend for outdoor eating and entertainment.
But that’s not all. And as reported in The Independent, garden centres have endured massive change over the past decade, moving from stores where the serious enthusiast would purchase their specialist plants and supplies into leisure destinations for the whole family, offering food, clothing and entertainment centres.
Sir Tom Hunter was one of the first to see the huge potential in this industry and last year snapped up Wyevale, the UK's biggest garden centre chain, for £310m. Now Tesco is aiming to get into the horticultural trade, by purchasing Dobbies for £228m. However, Sir Tom appears to be aiming to stop the Tesco juggernaut in its tracks – he’s increased his stake in Dobbies to 20.6 per cent. Tim Briercliffe, director of business development at the Horticultural Trades Association is surprised a move by a large retailer didn’t come sooner. "They have seen the big potential, but because the industry is so fragmented it makes it difficult and messy to come in and buy up a lot of little shops," he said.
So we may see more supermarket style plant-selling in the near future. But there’s a downside to this. Bunny Guinness, interviewed on Radio Four, had serious concerns, “People don't realise how serious this is going to be, and consumers will get hit in the end, Tesco is likely to bring in plants and even its cut flower business from places such as China and eastern Europe where they can buy in bulk cheaply. Plants are grown as quickly as possible in polythene tunnels and fully protected environments to maximise profits. But when they are transferred to UK gardens, they are completely unprepared for British conditions. Many don't survive. Gardeners and customers need hardy plants that will survive when they take them home - not just long enough for people to hand over their cash. Buying plants for your home is not like buying a bag of sugar; customers like to get advice and growing tips. Will Tesco be able to do that?”
Will they indeed – we may find out soon!
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
The National Gardens SchemeAmbrose Place is one of those peculiar little streets that you rarely come across and never really get to explore, but when I heard the residents were opening their gardens to the public for charity, I knew I had to get along and see them properly.
The significant thing about Ambrose Place is that the ten gardens are on one side of a quiet road, and the houses they belong to are on the other! When you drive along the road, in Worthing, your eye is drawn to the bright courtyard areas that front the houses, and it takes a few minutes to realise that the gardens are on the other side. So on Sunday, off I trotted, camera in hand, to explore this peculiar bit of horticultural mystery.
The first thing I’ve got to say is that there’s a peculiar British disease that annoys me no end – it’s called amateurism, and it excuses everything from rudeness to incompetence. We walked the length of Ambrose Place, with absolutely no idea how we might get a ticket that would enable us to visit the gardens. Most houses had a bright poster in the window saying they were taking part in the National Gardens Scheme, but not one had bothered to put up a sheet of paper telling the hapless visitor how and where to pay for their entrance! In the end we accosted a ticket wielding tourist and discovered we had to walk down a side street and round the back of another house, Ambrose Villa, to get our own tickets. You would have thought that after twenty-four years, they'd have somehow picked up the idea that a few directions would help their visitors no end, wouldn't you?
The second disappointment was that not a single plant was labelled, so although touring the gardens was fun, it was a little frustrating not to know what some of the rarer plants were – in fact, I was very chuffed to be able to identify all but one of the species and at least half of the varieties, but the one that defeated me left me fuming – I still don’t know what it is, and I am determined to find out. Perhaps it's unfair of me to want labels, or at least somebody on hand to ask questions of, yes, on second thoughts, that is expecting too much, after all, the plants in my garden aren't labelled so why should theirs be?
Overall though, the opportunity to visit the garden; to look at how other people cope with shady corners and a road bisecting their green spaces, was very worthwhile and gave me several good ideas for the future – I took so many photographs that the camera memory filled up. This picture shows the most formal of the ten gardens – a simple green space with a single structural feature – very restful!
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Basic Biology for Gardeners - Dead-headingThe plants in your garden really have only one interest, much like young men in too much aftershave on a Saturday night – which is to produce seed during a relatively short life! If you let them do this, their task is over.
However, you can trick your plants easily into continuing to blossom, simply by removing flower blooms that have passed their prime, which encourages the plant to produce more flower blooms, all with the intent of producing seed. This results, quite obviously, in a ready show of new flowers. You can extend the bloom life of some flowering plants by three or four weeks by nipping off spent flowers every day. These mesembryanthemums, being guarded by Rebus the blond Cairn Terrier, would have stopped flowering by now if I hadn’t been an assiduous dead-header.
But there are other reasons to dead-head – as I’ve already said in this blog many times, annuals reproduce by seed, and if given the opportunity, you may end up with far more plants next year than you ever wanted – Californian Poppies are the worst culprit for this, in my opinion, and they can take over a lawn in two summers, if you give them half a chance. So removing the flowerheads before they can set seed means you have less work to do in getting rid of unwanted plants next year.
Additionally dead-heading diverts the plant's focus from producing seed, to putting on new growth above and below ground. This means that new shoots will often appear and strong roots systems will develop. For perennials, this can extend the life of the plant as well as improving its appearance.
Finally, dead-heading reduces the scope given to pests and diseases to creep into your garden and take hold of your favourite plants.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Hot stuff and colour issuesBlazing June? Not where I live! The past week has been gifted with intermittent sunshine and torrential showers, with muggy heat but grey skies that have stopped the garden showing its full June glory. However, plants with hot colours grouped together make little bonfires of brilliance in the garden, and here you can see a fig tree that's trained to grow along the fence, fronted by an outdoor dracaena (the red palm in the background) fronted by kniphofia – better known as red hot pokers – fronted in turn by the fiery beauty of a papavar orientale or oriental poppy.
In other parts of the garden we have cooler collections; like white arum lilies and pale violet iris near the pond, flanked by variegated pond grasses and with lower growing clear blue forget-me-nots in front. And in other parts still, powerful contrasts give drama – purple iris and bright orange Californian poppies or clear yellow St. John’s Wort sitting alongside a blue ceanothus that shines like its common name – Californian lilac.
Using colour to create effects is useful, particularly in Britain’s changeable climate when we can’t rely on endless blue skies to provide the backdrop for our plants and structures. Plants aren’t the only way, however, you can use paint to change the effect of light and warmth in the garden or even use planters and pots to provide a focus of colour: black is dramatic and somehow rather oriental, silver is modern, adds light and supports the use of highly structural plants like topiary, while terracotta is warming and traditional and leads to an impression of Greek, Roman or even Egyptian influences.
Using colour requires us to be ruthless though – there’s very little point having a paisley swing set, floral cushions, tangerine coloured loungers, blue picnic-ware and a tartan rug if we want to create a coherent impression! Thinking ahead to keep our accessories either neutral (British Racing Green, for example, goes with everything!) or in line with our major design themes is essential. For an oriental garden, think of red wood, black as a good colour for fabrics and lots of green. For a modernist garden, link silver and aluminium to clear blue or purple and think about square designs and lots of light. For that traditional Mediterranean impression aim for rustic furniture styles, neutral fabrics with a lot of texture or those with bright ethnic patterns and chunky irregular glassware and blue and white glazed plates and pots to remind us of those wonderful old-fashioned urns and ewers hand-made by potters in ancient days.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Garden Designs; the good the bad and the uglyAs I travel, I often come across imaginative gardens, or, alternatively, throwbacks to a previous age. It’s quite astonishing how easily one can date a garden by the plants in it and the layout. Decking, for example, will mark the first decade of the new millennium, while the big 1950s trademark was the conservatory. The swinging sixties didn’t just bring free love and mini-skirts, they were also the zenith of the raised rock garden (if you walk into a garden when the flowerbeds rise to about waist height and are studded with granite, you can bet that garden was built in the 1960s. So, in the interest of good garden design, I’ve been clicking away at the gardens I pass to bring you some of the nicest, nastiest and most thought provoking.
Here’s my first find – a garden just down the road from me. It’s an interesting take on the classic formal garden, remodelled for the tiny suburban frontage. The standard box hedges have been laid out in a formal design and there are two classic trees, cut to spheres – a feature that normally flanks a doorway – here nearly adjusted to flank a bay window. There’s an ivy mound in the centre of the formal knot garden; ivy mounds are common in grottoes and wildernesses but not usually seen in formal spaces, and the urn, which in a stately home would have the coat of arms (known as the armorial bearings) of the aristocratic family, and would normally contain a cascading plant, is here housing a nice spiky succulent which offers a good contrasting shape and texture to the dense rather fidgety leaves that make up the rest of the display.
It’s a really imaginative and well planned space – the maintenance will be quite time consuming, but perhaps not much more so than in a front garden with grass and a flower border – I would imagine that the people who live here are used to people stopping and admiring their frontage, because formal gardens always attract attention, so this is not a style to adopt if you don’t want folk hovering outside your house. On the other hand, this is certainly an all year round winner, because formal gardens in winter are spectacularly lovely, especially when coated in snow.
Friday, June 8, 2007
Where the really wild things are ...Okay, a little extremity today. I can't show you a picture of this, because it's not actually in bloom yet, but my wild garden is actually a bit wilder than you might think, because around the edge of my pond I planted a bog, and in the bog, I planted - carnivores!
Yeah, really - in fact there are several native carnivorous plants like sundews, butterworts and bladderworts. I grow sundews, which are pink to red coloured plants, covered with glistening blobs held on long hairs, like threads of molten glass – they are actually very pretty creatures, I mean plants! The thing you have to remember if you want to grow them is that just about all the native sundews actually thrive in nutrient-poor environments, which means wet, peaty situations which are low in nitrogen and phosphate. Give them too much soil nutrient and they die – weird but true. It’s because they are designed to get nutrients from insects and (1) the wrong insects turn up in rich soil areas and don’t land on the plants, so they starve, (2) the overabundance of nitrogen in the soil poisons the plant.
How do they work?
I’m glad you asked, because it’s pretty gory - the red hairs or filaments are more like tentacles which respond when something lands on them or the plant surface by bending inwards to trap and hold the prey in a sort of living cage by means of the sticky mucilage at their tips. Initial reaction begins within ten seconds which is not Bruce Lee fast, but it’s still quite impressive to watch.
If you’re interested in growing carnivorous plants in the UK, by which I mean outdoors, rather than in special tanks (I always think ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ when I come across people growing carnivorous plants indoors) these people are the business.
When planning your carnivore garden, remember that it needs to be nutrient poor and you have to be able to stop animals like cats and dogs trampling on it as the plants are highly sensitive to damage – it has to be nutrient poor, which may mean actually bringing in poor soil and large plants must not shade out the bog – light is necessary for many carnivorous plants to thrive, which is the opposite of normal ponds, where shade is valued because it stops algae and other nasties taking hold of the water because they breed so fast.
Not all of these plants are fully hardy in England, and there’s no real data on how well they do in other countries, so you may have to protect them (I do) with cloches over the winter nights.
Monday, June 4, 2007
The scents of early summerThis is the best time of year for people like me – every season has its glories of course, but the late spring/early summer period has the greatest glory of all, to my way of thinking, because it has the most beautifully fragrant flowers.
In my garden, right now, with the faintest hint of sun, the scent of the broad bean flowers (light, sweet, milky), competes with that of the pea flowers (clear and clean smelling), but both are totally over-ruled by the perfume of the dianthus flowers. The deep purple ones in the picture are the alpine dianthus Annette which has the distinct aroma of cloves which is the signature note of the dianthus (or pink) family. They are planted with the taller dianthus Flamingo which has a lighter and less rich note, something like raspberry ripple ice-cream. They are in a container because my garden soil doesn’t favour dianthus and I do! So I pot them up and add some sand and a tiny amount of gardeners’ lime to the compost to give them the conditions they like, free-draining and lightly limed. Dianthus only give of their best when the sun hits them – if you water them in the morning, it can take several hours for them to shrug off the moisture and produce their wonderful aromas, so I am careful always to water mine at dusk, so that I get the whole day with their powerful, almost edible, scents filling the garden. They really like to be in stone containers for reasons that I don’t understand but try to respond to, so I either give them clay or something like this, to put their roots into.
On the balcony, outside my bedroom window, are:
The sweet peas; a mixture of the purple and crimson variety that have the best scent (intense, sugary, somewhat wine-like) and the multi-coloured pastel varieties that are prettier to look at but less fragrant (fleeting scent with a somewhat papery afternote) – they give the room a sweet fragrance all day and
White night-scented stock or nicotiana, which hardly have any odour at all in the day, but suddenly flood the night air with an aroma that is like vanilla and golden syrup, an intensely sweet and pure odour that guarantees good dreams …
Fragrance in the garden is one of the greatest pleasures I know, and given the choice between a scented and unscented plant, I'll always choose the former. It's like a feast for the nose at this time of year and I hope your garden is as full of fragrance as mine ...
Friday, June 1, 2007
Chelsea!I can finally sort out my thoughts. I don’t know what Chelsea means to you (‘blue is the colour, football is the game’, quite possibly) but to me, and a lot of other gardeners, it means the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show. It’s the biggest annual bean-feast, competitive gardening event and all round jolly in the UK gardening world, but it’s also a superb venue for picking up new ideas, for exploring trends and for ear-wigging bitchy gossip.
If, like me, you’re there on a journalist ticket, you get – if you’re lucky – one day to tour all the gardens and make notes on everything you see, and that means ending up with something very much like vegetative indigestion. There’s so much to see, so much to smell (not a huge amount to touch, sadly, it’s rather a hands-off show for obvious reasons), so much colour, texture, space, light, the sound of a thousand water features sends you running to the loo where the queues are longer than those for strawberries and cream at Wimbledon ….
Okay, back to the point. Once again the judges - that formidable bunch of horticulturalists - handed out a plethora of awards. Did I agree with them? Sometimes. I thought the National Linnaeus Tercentenary Committee garden (what a mouthful) was gorgeous and well-designed, but the Fortnum and Mason's one was just a bit tacky; too focused on ‘themes’ and not enough on plants – and their shell grotto arches were, frankly, naff.
My favourite garden: The CAF Giving Garden; Where the Wild Things Are - didn’t place at all, which is utterly bizarre to me. Based on the book by Sendak which many of us read as children or to our children, it was a lovely, imaginative and thoughtful planting; perhaps not entirely pulled off visually but really beautifully worked through – the bed of the little boy was covered in camomile, lavender and passiflora, which all encourage sleep and then there were exciting ‘dream’ plants like banana, giant elephants ear, flowering rhubarb, artichoke and angelica which indicated the ‘wild things’ that the little boy encounters. It would have got gold from me!
And once again the BBC Peoples’ Award went to a classic garden, as opposed to the somewhat avant garde ones that won the formal judging. The Old Gate, designed by Adam Woolcott and Jonathan Smith is based on a 1930s and ‘40s theme which the judge’s seem to have overlooked. It just goes to show, you can’t please everybody.
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