Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Humungous Green Leaf

Emma at A Nice Green Leaf had the brilliant idea of focusing on foliage instead of flowers on 30 June with a celebration entitled The Big Green Leaf. I love flowers, but I always fall harder for foliage. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's the result of gardening in London, which makes one so aware of year-round visual appeal, and contrasting shapes, and plants that screen you from the rest of the world, and things that do well in shade, such as ferns and Fatsia japonica. One of the great benefits of living in London, however, is that you can take advantage of the big-city greenhouse effect to grow things that might prove more challenging in the countryside. In my case, this has led to growing Even Bigger Green Leaves, such as hardy bananas (Musa basjoo) and Tetrapanax papyrifera. I protect the bananas in winter with fleece, but the tetrapanax is left to take its chance. I also have a couple of tree ferns, Dicksonia antarctica, but I don't wrap them up either. I leave any browned fronds on until I see the new growth, just to give them a bit of protection. Indeed, the trickiest plants in my garden are the Japanese maples, which don't like very dry conditions. In the summer of 2003 they really suffered, so last year's non-stop deluge from June to August was good news as far as they were concerned.

The spectacular leaves of Washingtonia filifera . It's growing in a pot, in a very sheltered position against a south-facing fence

Friday, June 27, 2008

Veg on Mars

Here is a news flash: apparently the soil on Mars is highly suitable for growing asparagus, according to the latest report from Nasa. The soil is mildly alkaline (with a PH of between 8 and 9), making it also good for turnips and green beans, but not so good for strawberries. I'm going to apply for my allotment right now.

A very good place to get Big Green Leaves

This week we made the annual pilgrimage to Architectural Plants who have two nurseries in West Sussex - one at Nuthurst, near Horsham, and one at Chichester. We always go to the Nuthurst one because it seems closer, though I suspect the Chichester branch is bigger. AP is my idea of a really, really good nursery. They are incredibly helpful, and generous with advice. They provide loads of information. Their plants look fabulously healthy. They care passionately about their plants, to the extent of being extremely scathing about people who don't treat them properly. (Don't worry, they're far too nice to be scathing to your face: these criticisms are delivered in the form of rants posted on the walls of the coffee shop for you to enjoy while you sip your free cup of tea.) The office and the 'lav' are designed to look like jungle pavilions, so wandering around the nursery is an aesthetic pleasure in itself. It was Architectural Plants who first put me in touch with Jake Hobson, who runs Niwaki and who has now written a book on Japanese pruning techniques. (I wanted to find someone who was brave enough to prune Pinus montezumae, and show me how to do it too.)

There's just one problem with plants that are architectural. They tend to be big, or grow up to be big, so it's best to be extremely disciplined when you visit AP, or you'll end up suffering from eyes-bigger-than-your-garden syndrome. Make a list and measure your space before you go, because I defy you to come back empty-handed, especially if you're addicted to topiary. Finally, a note for dry-shade or problem-corner sufferers: if you're going to the website or the nursery, check out Hebe parviflora angustifolia. It will turn the dry shade or the problem corner into a gorgeous mound of feathery green foliage. It even has flowers.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I've been tagged by Melissa at Garden Portraits. Thanks, Melissa, I was beginning to feel left out!

This is what you do:

* Link to the person who tagged you.
* Post the rules on the blog.
* Write six random things about yourself.
* Tag six people at the end of your post.
* Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
* Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Here are six random things about me:

I. I am named after a monk. My mother taught at Worth, which is a Benedictine boarding school, just after she graduated from art college. The head of the monastery was called Father Victor (later Abbot Victor, when Worth became an abbey). My mother loved Worth, which is a beautiful place deep in the Sussex countryside.

2. I have a twin sister, who is unidentical - so unidentical that, at a university reunion once, some people didn't even realise we knew each other, let alone were related. My twin is called Alexandra, but is always known as Sasha. She is older than me by half an hour and as the eldest, she was the one who was supposed to be Victoria. However, there was a bit of a kerfuffle during the baptism, because the priest felt that Victoria and Alexandra did not technically qualify as 'Christian' names (ie they're not the names of Catholic saints and they're not in the Bible). After a hasty discussion, my parents tagged on Anne and Mary, but during the panic, we were swapped over. I ended up as Victoria Anne and my sister is Alexandra Mary. So she's not only Sasha, but Sasha Masha. My parents went to Russia when we were six months old (babies? what babies?) on some sort of cultural exchange trip and that's where they got the idea for a pet name that I would be able to pronounce.

3. My earliest gardening memory is creating a little house in a tangle of collapsed wisteria at the end of our garden. (I think I was about 16 before I realised that most normal people train their wisteria up a wall.) As a child, I was a huge fan of Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit books, and in my wisteria house, I used to pretend I was Little Grey Rabbit bustling about in the kitchen.

4. I'm not crazy about the colour blue. I love it on flowers, but not in my home, or on my clothes, or shoes, or sports kit, or in my kitchen or bathroom. Sadly, the rest of the world appears to believe that every woman loves blue. (This is beginning to sound like some sort of philosophical paradox: A. Does this make me not a woman? B. Or is the rest of the world wrong? I go for B. Every time.)

5. I am qualified to teach piano, but I never have. The mere thought of having to teach anyone anything makes me want to lie down in a darkened room. My daughter says this is probably very good news for the world's music pupils.

6. I've spent nearly half my life in Scotland. I support Scotland at football and rugby, but England at cricket. Seems only fair.

Stacy at Florida Backyard

Kate at The Manic Gardener

Mrs Be at Carrots and Kids

Rach at The Big Sofa

Marie at Cote Jardin

Jo at The Impecunious Gardener

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What's your gardening soundtrack?

Cleve West once remarked in his Urban Gardener column for The Independent that it was very difficult to find music that made a good soundtrack for gardening. When I read this, my first instinct was to disagree, but then I thought about it, and I realised that he might be right. Listening to music while you're LOOKING at a garden (while watching a television programme, for example) is a very different thing to listening to music while you're WORKING in a gardening.
I hadn't realised, before I read Cleve's column, that I very rarely choose to listen to music in the garden. For a start, there are so many other noises going on: birdsong, the sound of water from the pond, the rustle of the trees in the wind. To introduce music into that seems almost like an intrusion. For me, gardening is as much about trying to achieve a tranquil interior, or mental, space (hah!) as it is about trying to achieve a calm oasis outside. Most popular or rock music doesn't really fit with that, since it tends to be too emotional. In the same way, the great romantic composers such as Brahms or Tchaikowsky or even Beethoven are too distracting. Even the English composers who are always associated with celebrating the countryside, such as Vaughan Williams, or Delius, aren't suitable either, I find, as they make me want to sit down and gaze, rather than get on and grub about.

The garden this morning. Soundtrack: Birdsong, by The Greenfinches, feat. Blackbird and Robin

However, my daughter often practises while I'm gardening, so I do hear music drifting out from the living room. And I've discovered that for me, the ideal gardening soundtrack is Bach, particularly the preludes and fugues. There's something about a Bach fugue; the way he sets out the theme, then interweaves it in such an intricate web of counterpoint you think the pianist's fingers are going to tie themselves in knots, then brings it all to a beautifully satisfying resolution. It somehow suits gardening, particularly fiddly jobs such as tying in climbers, or trimming lawn edges, or fishing blanketweed out of the pond, or pruning the bamboo (the sort of jobs I do all the time). For the record, if you'll excuse the pun, my favourites are Prelude and Fugue No 9 in E and No 17 in A flat from Book I of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and No 7 in E flat and No 14 in F sharp minor from Book II. I found a recording of the F sharp minor and you can listen to it below.
What's your gardening soundtrack? I'd love to know.

SeeqPod - Playable Search

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

At home with Helen Yemm (and Zoe)

Last Saturday, I met one of my gardening heroines. Helen Yemm is one of my favourite garden writers, not least because of her slightly acerbic tone. (I remember one item in her column, about where to get Felco secateurs serviced or sharpened: readers were adjured to cut out the information straight away and put it in a safe place, so that she would not be inundated with letters from idiots requesting a repeat of the information.) In the uncertain world of gardening, I tend to warm towards people who seem to know exactly what they're doing, and I need to read Helen's column every Saturday before going out into my own garden in much the same way that other people need to have a cup of coffee before they go to work. She always looks so self-possessed and business-like in her pictures or on the television, as if one glance from over the top of her spectacles could rout a clump of bindweed or send snails running for cover.
I hope she won't mind if I destroy this illusion by saying that in the flesh, she looks much younger, she's very glamorous and charming, and she's an extremely entertaining speaker. It's not just people she charms, either: she has the birds in her garden literally eating out of her hand.
The theme of Helen's talk (held to raise money for the National Gardens Scheme) was downsizing. She told us how she had had to move from Ketleys, the most amazing place that included a gravel garden, a vegetable garden, a woodland garden, and an orchard, to a complete wreck. She then explained how she had transformed the wreck into a miniature idyll, using the expertise she had acquired in her previous garden. It's always impressive when someone takes a garden by the scruff of the neck and transforms it, but in such traumatic circumstances, it's nothing short of heroic. Helen didn't go into great detail about why she had to move, but I must confess, my hand itched to give her ex a good slap.

The evening ended with a glass of wine and a wander round Helen's new garden, now burgeoning with hardy geraniums, grasses, libertia, sysirinchium and roses, among many other things. The garden wraps itself round the house, with a lawned area at the front, a pond at the side in full view of Helen's study and herbaceous borders that extend to a gravel garden at the end. It's my favourite kind of garden, with paths and winding routes that lead you on to explore further, and you can read more about it in this month's (July) issue of The English Garden, or in the series that Helen is writing for Gardeners' World magazine. You can also see more pictures on Helen's blog (see link in the column on the right).
There was one final surprise. Zoë introduced herself! She'd been at the talk too. It was lovely to meet her, not least because it was great to have someone to chatter to about the garden. (My husband had come with me, but he's not really a plantaholic.) The world of garden bloggers is a strange one: suddenly you seem to be cybersoulmates with a host of people around the world. So it was rather nice to discover when you meet a fellow garden blogger that yes, they do seem like an old friend, and you could quite happily spend all day talking to them.

The 'too late for Bloom Day' slide show

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A passion for Pashley

I may not grow many roses, but that doesn't mean I don't like them. I think for most people, the fragrance of a rose garden, along with new-mown grass and lavender, are the quintessential scents of summertime. I even like the smell of box and flowering privet for the same reason: it reminds me of childhood summers.
So a weekend in the middle of June has to mean a visit to a rose garden, and we chose Pashley Manor Gardens in East Sussex. Pashley is a privately owned garden, which means that its owners, Mr and Mrs James Sellick, have been free to set their own stamp on its 11 acres, rather than have to adhere to an historic template. The manor house dates from 1550, however, and the grounds include a walled garden, so they have retained a traditional English feel to the planting, with touches of theatre here and there. One of the most dramatic ideas is a red border, which you enter either from the walled garden or from the shade of the trees. Vast thickets of Rosa moyesii 'Geranium', the colour of the lipstick worn by 1940s film stars, rise above dark-red alstroemerias, cotinus and mahogany heuchera. The view from this bit of the garden, looking back towards the house with its typically tall Elizabethan chimneys, is spectacular.

The vegetable garden also uses red effectively, picking up the colour of the roses around the walls with deep maroon lettuce. Unfortunately, I was so busy admiring this combination I forgot to note the name of the rose, or of the crimson sweet peas.

You enter the vegetable garden via a walk lined with pale pinky-peach 'Irene Watts' roses and pear trees trained in what I think is called 'palmette' style, or trident shape, so they form a screen above the roses.

Pashley isn't just about roses. There is a woodland area, with a walk that leads around a lake, and the terrace where the teas are served extends from a classic herbaceous border into a yellow-themed border featuring climbing roses such as 'Graham Thomas' and 'Alister Stella Gray' There's animal life, too, in the form of importunate ducks, who cluster round you as soon as you sit down with your tea and cake. Visitors are under strict instructions not to feed them, probably because the ducks are so greedy, they would eventually explode. The selection of cakes was amazing, from traditional sponge cakes with rose-flavoured icing, to Victorian peach and fig. I think if I stayed at Pashley for any significant time, I would probably explode too.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Reeds and saxophones

The more I look at other people's gardens, and the more I talk to other gardeners, the more I realise that I'm really pretty hopeless at most things horticultural. I don't grow vegetables (having converted the raised veg bed into a pond following the drought years of 2004-6). And I'm useless at taking cuttings and growing things from seed. But I do have one proud boast, and that is that I can supply the reeds for an entire woodwind section from my backyard. Arundo donax (left), which I grow to hide the trampoline, is grown as a commercial crop in southern France and Argentina for the manufacture of clarinet, oboe, bassoon and saxophone reeds.
I can't remember what sequence of serendipitous surfing provided me with this information, but I can now tell you that to provide a clarinet reed, the stem needs to be at least 2.8cms (just over an inch) wide. Depending on quality and make, the reeds cost up to around £30 for 10. Of course, in some parts of the world, arundo is a pestiferous thug - like Equisetum hyemale, or horsetail, which sensible UK gardeners are wary of planting unless it is in a pot. Coincidentally, equisetum (right), or reed rush as it’s sometimes known, is what clarinettists and saxophonists use to customise, or fine-tune, their reeds. If you're familiar with equisetum, it may amuse you to know that this potentially invasive weed costs musicians around a fiver for a packet containing no more than a dozen three-inch sections. I grow both arundo and equisetum in my garden. Which is probably why I’ve often noticed Steve, my daughter’s saxophone teacher, gazing thoughtfully out of the window...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The grass that blew my mind

I'm very good at acquiring plants. I'm really bad at sorting them out when I get home. In my garden, there's usually a row of evacuees, complete with metaphorical gas masks and labels round their necks, sitting on the step waiting to be assigned to a new home. If they're lucky, they get planted up in a pot. If they're unlucky, and need to go straight into the ground, then it's anyone's guess when I'll get round to digging a hole for them.
The trouble is, I usually have somewhere in mind for them, but when I get them back to the garden, I then change my mind about where they're going to go, or find that the pot that would be ideal already has something else in it that needs to be rehomed, and then while I'm wondering about that, I think I might see if there are any damselflies on the pond, or fill up the bird feeder and before you know it, it's next Wednesday.
Some of the time, my eyes are just bigger than my garden, and I come home with something that I really really want, but without a clue as to where it is going to go. This usually happens when I go to a really good nursery.
Visiting a good nursery is one of the great pleasures of gardening life. It's wonderful to wander round a fascinating selection of plants, to see something that makes your heart skip a beat, to spot something that you've never seen before, that you absolutely must have. You have the added bonus of expert knowledge, of talking to someone who has known that plant since it was a seed or a cutting, and is familiar with its funny little ways. And if that nursery has a garden attached, as Knoll Gardens, near Wimborne, in Dorset, do (see picture below), and the day on which you are visiting happens to be a gloriously sunny Saturday in June, then that's pretty much my idea of heaven.

Knoll Gardens ( to order a catalogue or buy online) have won gold medals at the Chelsea for the past seven years. They specialise in grasses and perennials, but their Chelsea display is usually dominated by the grasses: lush clumps of miscanthus, arundo, equisetum, pennisetum and hakone, to name only a few. I'd picked up a catalogue at Chelsea and spotted something called Muhlenbergia dumosa, aka Bamboo Muhly, which is a good name for it as it resembles a cross between a grass and a very delicate bamboo, with cane-like stalks and fine, feathery foliage. It's native to Arizona and Mexico, so it's drought-tolerant. It does well in a pot and looks fabulous with the sun shining through it. The Muhly was my heart-beats-faster plant, but I also bought some hakonechloa (Knoll do what they call starter, or smaller plants, which are useful for tucking into tight corners: three for £10) and some Sisyrinchium striatum 'Aunt May', to which, like hakone grass, I've become slightly addicted. What with the heatwave and my incipient sunburn, and the excitement of being in Dorset, which I love, I nearly lost my head and bought some Dianthus carthusianorum. This is a fabulous dianthus, deep pink, with tall grassy stems, which would look great with grasses. It's incredibly elegant, like a 1950s fashion model, but with the simplicity and scale of a wild flower. Gorgeous. But I couldn't think where I would put it, so reluctantly left it for next time. (Front garden. Definitely.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hurray for the holidays

Yay, I'm on holiday. For Ten Whole Days. This means I will be able to:
Spend time at home with my family.
Do some gardening.
Visit gardens.
In theory. In practice, I will:
Nag daughter about piano practice (she has the Big One, Grade 8, in three weeks).
Nag son about A-level revision.
Lever son out of bed each morning (morning? I'll be lucky) in order to nag son about A-level revision.
But I will make sure that I:
Go to Dorset for the weekend and visit the Knoll Gardens nursery at Wimborne.
Go on a guided tour of the flower market at New Covent Garden next Thursday (I'd never dare go on my own).
Visit Helen Yemm's garden next Saturday (she's hosting an NGS Friends event).
Take in Pashley Manor on the way to Helen Yemm's.
Remember to take my camera, and batteries, so I can take lots of pictures. Especially for Emmat.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Paying homage in Homerton

On Sunday, between bouts of torrential rain, I went to see my friend Philip's garden, which was opening under the National Gardens Scheme. Philip lives in Homerton (next door to Hackney) and his garden is typical of a terraced Victorian house: narrow, and with a shady side return (the garden faces north-east). He and two other neighbours open as a group, called Lower Clapton Gardens. Philip and I were at university together (Edinburgh, since you ask), but whereas I studied dinner-party subjects, Philip studied botany, which is much more useful. Everything in his garden looks incredibly happy and well-tended and it's difficult to believe that 15 years ago, when he moved in, he inherited the typical London bombsite garden, with scabby grass and some rubble down the end.
He's designed the garden well, too, creating a sense of adventure and mystery effectively by splitting the garden in two. Stepping stones through the lawn lead you to the right of the garden, to a pot filled with hakonechloa and framed by shrubs. Behind this is the second section, which has a lean-to greenhouse filled with Philip's exotic, tender specimens, a seriously good compost heap, and, at the back, in the shade of a huge potted agave, a secluded seating area with benches and cushions. At the side of the house, there's a little pool in a pot surrounded by hostas. It's a fantastic example of how to create a green oasis in your average urban backyard.

That's the great thing about NGS garden visiting: there's always something to inspire you. Unlike Chelsea show gardens, these are real gardens, tended by ordinary people with the usual demands on their time (day jobs, young families, elderly relatives) in plots that are very like one's own in terms of size and situation.
The other two gardens were completely different from Philip's, yet also fascinating. One, owned by a plantaholic called, appropriately, Rose, was so full of interesting plants (including a wonderful pawlonia) I almost forgot to go home. The other was a tiny patio garden, owned by Annie, who seemed to be the sort of person who would create a garden at the top of Everest if that's where she found herself. Crammed into her tiny plot were flowers, herbs, even a huge papyrus in one corner. She'd laid her patio herself, with engineering bricks, and had found a neat solution to the perennial London problem of taking garden refuse through the house. (In a garden of this size, there was no room for a compost heap.)
If you've ever had to take rubbish through the house, you'll know that the bag breaks just as you reach the living room carpet or a pristine sanded floor. You can buy "tip bags", but they cost around £20. Annie had recycled one of those big white one-ton bags in which builders' merchants deliver aggregates, which is perfect for the job, since it's big and tough. The tragic irony is that she got it from some builders who were concreting over the garden next door. What a pity the owners couldn't have signed it over to Annie instead of embarking on the sort of 'home improvements' that contribute to environmental damage.

Wet, wet, wet

"It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told
himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness knows
how old -- three, was it, or four? -- never had he seen so much
rain. Days and days and days." (A A Milne)
I couldn't have put it better myself.