Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bad news and good news

Something destroyed my begonias. I can't even bring myself to take a photograph of the damage. I have nurtured the little chaps ever since I got them from Rhodes and Rockcliffe just after the Chelsea Flower Show. Begonia grandis subsp sinensis, and when I first got them, the name was bigger than they were. They went from tiny pot to bigger pot, to even bigger pot. They were just beginning to sprout sideshoots. Then along came some creature (a pigeon? a squirrel?), who nipped first one, then the second right off, leaving just a stump. They didn't even eat the leaves, but left them lying beside the pot, as a final act of callous vandalism. There was no sign of any snail trail. And in any case, the plants had been out in the garden for two months, so if snails or slugs had taken a fancy to them, I would have known by now. Sigh.
(Shopping list now reads: Burkha [see previous post]. Deet [ditto]. Gun. I expect MI5 at the door any moment now.)

My daughter passed her piano exam! With distinction! She's had a smile from ear to ear ever since she got the news. (Which for a 14-year-old is saying something, believe me...) She's at the piano as I write this, playing the Liszt Consolation No 3 in D flat. It seems appropriate. If you don't know the piece, check out the Artur Rubinstein version below.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Revenge of the euphorbia: Part II

To be honest, this post should really be entitled "A full-bodied whine". I'm feeling extremely sorry for myself, so if you think you might find this tedious, stop reading right now.
It is now three weeks since I burned my leg on some euphorbia sap in the garden. The painful swelling subsided after about a week on antihistamines, leaving the red mark that you saw on my earlier post. However, the burn then suddenly flared up again, this time becoming not only swollen but also incredibly itchy. I took the antibiotics the doctor had prescribed as well as the antihistamines and eventually, it went down again. All you can see now is a faint red mark, from mid-calf to ankle, on the outside of my left leg and a little bit of swelling that only I can detect. (In other words, my husband says it's just my imagination.) I finally finished the last of the antibiotics - a 10-day course - last weekend with a sigh of relief.
I awoke this morning to find that a small midge bite behind my left knee, which had been a mere pinprick yesterday, was now an angry red lump as big as my hand. Went to the doctor - again - and was sent off hotfoot (or rather hot knee) to have a blood test that would "determine my allergy status" before they decide how to "manage" these reactions. Steroids; steroids plus antibiotics; antibiotics plus superstrength antihistamine: what a tempting selection of pills and prescriptions lies ahead.
The midge bite is probably my fault for not covering myself in Deet before I went into the garden yesterday evening. The trouble is, if you're a keen gardener, you tend to think: "Ooh, while I've got five minutes spare, I think I'll water those cuttings." You don't think: "Ooh, while I've got five minutes spare, I'll run upstairs and cover myself in Deet, and by that time the five minutes will be up, and anyway I'll have been distracted by a chore, or a child, and I will forget all about the cuttings."
I'm now armed with prescription superstrength antihistamine, and I'm starting to stink of Deet, which is just as well, because in my more wimpish moments, I'm almost scared to go into the garden. You know, I'm beginning to see the point of burkas...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Does my bamboo look big in this?

The Constant Gardener, who works as a professional gardener, wrote a post on her blog last month launching the Bamboo Uprooting Movement, or BUM for short. I have a lot of bamboo in my garden, mainly Phyllostachys nigra, and I have to say I am pretty much in sympathy with her. Even P. nigra, which is supposed to be fairly well-behaved, will lift paving when it sends up new shoots in late spring, and it has absolutely no respect for boundaries, gleefully sprouting in my neighbour's garden as well as mine.
We inherited our bamboo from the previous owner, and the most spectacular is the one in the front garden, which I think is Phyllostachys vivax f. aureocaulis. Or possibly P. vivax 'Aureocaulis'. Or even P. vivax aureocaulis. It's difficult to know for sure, because there are so many variations on the name that I can never work out whether these are different cultivars or just people being sloppy in their cataloguing. Anyway, it has spectacular golden stems, or culms, with the odd green stripe along some of the sections. It's about 30ft high.
Each year, it sends up new shoots which always remind me of Samurai warriors, or something from a film by Akira Kurosawa. The tips of the shoots have strange, kinked heads that look like some sort of intricately carved spear or helmet spike. The first hint that this Oriental army is on the move is when we see chunks of paving or concrete in the front garden being pushed aside as if they were polystyrene rock from the special effects department of a sci-fi movie. It's a bit scary. As I commented to Constant Gardener, any day now I expect to see one come punching up through the living room floor, like the hand in the final scene of Carrie.
I groom the golden-stemmed bamboo, taking off the shoots up to about head height, so you can see the stems. If you do this when they first sprout, they're still very soft and you can nip them off by hand. You get a much cleaner finish this way. I had to try not to laugh when, over dinner at a neighbour's house, a friend of theirs confided that she'd looked everywhere for a bamboo that had bare stems like mine, but all the local garden centres had never heard of such a species...
I do the same to P. nigra, but not quite to the same extent, because it's planted in front of a dark brown fence (duhrr!), so the dark stems would disappear completely. On the other hand, if it was left au naturel, it would take up far more space, so I leave just enough green to allow the framework of the plant to be seen.
There are lots of remedies for containing bamboo. You can grow it in a large pot, like mint, or line the planting hole with paving slabs. The trouble is, these steps need to be taken before the bamboo is planted, so if you inherit yours, as I did, you just have to try to restrain it as best you can. My advice, if you have limited space, is to think very carefully before you plant the taller bamboos, even those that are allegedly "non-invasive". They are naturally big plants, and trying to restrict them is a bit like expecting a Great Dane to live in a Chihuahua-sized kennel.
There are advantages, however. Our golden-stemmed bamboo is well-known in the neighbourhood and people often stop to admire it, or take photographs. If we're giving people directions, we just tell them to look for the house with the big bamboo. At moments like these, you feel proud to have a show-stopper in the front garden. I just wish there was a foolproof way to bring down the curtain before the bamboo brings down the house.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The breakfast table barometer

Gardeners are notoriously obsessed with the weather, and ways of predicting the weather. That includes me, so I was fascinated when I stumbled over this particular method. It was in a recipe book called Maw Broon's Cookbook, which my husband's daughter Kirsten gave us for Christmas. (If you don't know who Maw Broon is, you'll have to lay your hands on a copy of the Sunday Post, which is a Scottish Sunday newspaper. Oh, OK, Google if you must...) The cookbook is full of traditional Scottish recipes and printed like an old scrapbook, with old newspaper cuttings and vintage advertisements and other bits and pieces pasted in.
Anyway, this particular cutting was headed "The Breakfast Table Barometer". It read: "A cup of hot coffee is an unfailing barometer, if you allow a lump of sugar to drop to the bottom of the cup and watch the air bubbles arise without disturbing the coffee. If the bubbles collect in the middle, the weather will be fine; if they adhere to the cup, forming a ring, it will either rain or snow; and if the bubbles separate without assuming any fixed position, changeable weather may be expected."
I'd never heard of this before. Why coffee? Is it more susceptible than other beverages to barometric pressure? Would the technique work just as well with a cup of tea? Does it matter if you add millk or not? Does anybody know?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

An Inspector Calls

I know lots of people are fascinated by the National Garden Scheme selection process, particularly since the BBC's Open Gardens series with Carol Klein. It IS nerve-racking, but in my experience, the television series slightly plays up this side of it for dramatic effect. I thought you might be interested in hearing a real-life account.
I volunteered to open for the NGS in April 2006, in a moment of post-garden-visiting madness. It wasn't so much that I think my garden is particularly gorgeous - though it has some interesting things in it. (The pictures on this post show it as it looked then.) But I'd just been to see a couple of small gardens on a cold April afternoon and while they were lovely, I could have killed for a cup of tea. So often in London, the NGS gardens, though fabulous, are too small to do anything other than shuffle round in single file. People sometimes travel quite a distance to see them, often on their own, and I liked the idea of being able to offer them the chance to sit down and relax.
I contacted the London county organiser, Penny Snell, who passed me on to the assistant county organiser, Joey Clover. As in the TV series, all gardens are inspected to ensure there is enough interest to justify the entrance fee (which in London starts at around £2 for a town garden like mine) and that there are no health and safety issues, such as slippery steps, unfenced ponds and so on. Joey rang me and arranged to come not in the middle of winter as they do in the TV series (how daft is that?) but in July, when the garden would be looking pretty much as it would when it opened.
The inspection is a daunting prospect, as those of you who have seen Open Gardens will know. Luckily, the series didn't begin until after I'd been accepted, or I would never have dared do it. In any case, when I came to my senses, I was so sure my garden would be rejected, I didn't really worry about it.
Far more spooky was the fact that everything that could go wrong promptly did so. You know how in Greek mythology the queen who boasts of her daughter's beauty, or the girl who prides herself on her spinning prowess, incurs the wrath of the gods before you can say "By Jove"? It was a bit like that.
In my case, the first of the horticultural thunderbolts came courtesy of Thompson & Morgan, the seed company. I'd ordered a batch of Nicotiana sylvestris seedlings in the hope that their stately 5ft stems and fragrant white candelabras of flowers would temporarily mask the areas I was still rethinking. After several weeks of cosseting, the plants started to develop flower spikes at a suspiciously low level. They were Nicotiana all right, but the smaller F1 bedding variety, and, worse, they weren't white, but a mixture of magenta, salmon and dirty pink.
The second thunderbolt was a plague of rosemary beetles, a rather attractive creature with iridescent green and purple stripes. Unfortunately, it was rather attracted to the rosemary and lavender in the front garden. Even if we weren't vaguely organic, we wouldn't want to spray pesticide on a herb we might use for cooking, so the only way to get rid of it was to pick the bugs off and squidge them between finger and thumb.
The third thunderbolt was the 2006 hosepipe ban. Much as I would have liked to squidge the directors of Thames Water between finger and thumb, this would probably have resulted in criminal proceedings. Instead, I lugged watering cans to and fro each evening, ministering to bits of new planting that were still trying to settle in.
By the time Joey arrived for the inspection (mercifully without the ominous Prokofiev soundtrack that accompanies the inspector in the TV series), I had given up all hope of my garden passing muster - indeed, all hope of having a garden at all. I'd expected a dragon, but Joey looked blonde and elegant. She was charming, listening politely as I gabbled on about how I was vaguely organic, which was why I didn't use slug pellets, or weedkiller on the lawn, and how I kept the new pond free of algae without using an algicide (I've got a UV filter).
We'd built the pond the year before, and were about to get rid of the climbing frame and replant that bit of the garden. Joey accepted my promise that it would all be ready in time without a murmur and said that because of all the drought-tolerant planting, she thought it would be of interest to lots of people. And the idea of having a garden that opened at the end of August was attractive, as so many gardens open in May or June. As for the famous 45 minutes of interest, she said that rule was slightly relaxed in London, as long as there was lots to see and talk about.
She wanted to know about practical things. Would people come through the house or down the side passage? (Down the side of the house, so their first view of the garden would be a surprise.) How would I serve the teas? (In the open-plan kitchen/diner, accessed from the garden.) What if people (or their children) wanted to use the loo – or the trampoline? (They could use the downstairs loo, and be warned that the trampoline was at their own risk, with no more than one child at a time.) Finally, to my astonishment, she said casually that if I felt brave enough, I could go into the Yellow Book for the following summer.
She's been back since, to drop off my leaflets and posters and so on, and always has a look at what's going on outside. I'm never sure whether she's checking up or just taking an interest. She's probably twigged that I have a habit of changing things or moving them around every five minutes, so perhaps she just wants to make sure the garden is still there...

Spring 2007. Unfortunately, I think I have erased all trace of the climbing frame
from our photo library as well as from the garden. ( We gave it to neighbours,
who have just recycled it to yet more neighbours.)

Summer 2007. Things are beginning to fill out and look a bit smarter

Spring 2008. The addition of 'the beach', as my husband calls it, means less
wear and tear around the pond (and less to mow). The box balls are intended
to break up the straight lines of the pond

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

GBBD: Confessions of a daylily virgin

I thought I'd use Bloom Day as an excuse to show off my latest acquisition. It is a daylily, Hemerocallis 'El Desperado', to be precise, and it's the first one I've ever had. I bought two of them at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Emmat helped me decide, but even so, I got into such a dither about which one I was going to have, I forgot to take a note of the variety AND left my wallet lying on the counter and had to run back for it. (I rang the nursery yesterday to find out the name.) It's beautiful, isn't it? I thought the colouring was very striking, but didn't notice until I took this picture that as well as the wine-coloured throat, the edges of the petals are wine-coloured too. Apparently this variety is 'dormant', rather than evergreen or semi-evergreen. I assume this means it dies down completely in winter? All you daylily experts out there, I'm relying on you for advice.

My next Bloom Day flower isn't nearly as spectacular as the daylily, but it's a plant that's becoming increasingly popular in London. It has a fragrance to die for, it's evergreen, it attracts bees, it doesn't seem to attract pests, it doesn't run amok, and, in my garden at least, it grows quite happily on a north-facing wall or fence (though it flowers better in full sun). The name of this paragon is Trachelospermum jasminoides. You may find it described as half-hardy in colder areas, but in London it easily survives the winter. It does quite well in a container, too.

For me, the whole point of growing Nicotiana is to have that fabulous scent. I love N. affinis and N. sylvestris, but there's no denying that the F1 bedding varieties are really tough and, in my experience, more slug-resistant. So it's nice to find a bedding variety in which fragrance is part of the package, rather than an accidental afterthought. This is N. 'Perfume' in a pale lime-green.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A bit of an Eeek! moment

I can't count at the best of times (and definitely not when I'm under pressure) so I may be mistaken about this. But I think I have only 14 potential gardening days before I open my garden for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday 31 August. That's not allowing for rain, or relatives coming to stay, or picking people up from Gatwick when they return from the school choir tour, or any other demands on my time. Eeek!
What's even worse, lots of people have promised to come and see the garden, which is lovely, but ever so slightly intensifies the pressure. When one of those people is Anna Pavord (whom under any other circumstances I love to pieces) and another is Cleve West (ditto), I start to wonder whether leaving the country might be an option. I know for a fact there are several plants in my garden upon which Cleve has poured scorn in his Urban Gardener columns for The Independent. Eeek! Eeek! Eeek!
I've booked the week before the opening as holiday. I did the same thing last year, and it poured with rain. I don't mind getting wet, but it is difficult to get things done when you can't wipe your glasses fast enough to see what you're doing.The rain lasted most of the week, long enough to ensure that all the gardening chores became a major struggle. Then, just as I got to the cakemaking stage, the sun came out, and I spent two days baking Victoria sponges and pretty much baking myself.
In the middle of it all, I was rung up by work ("We know you're on holiday, but we thought you wouldn't mind, because you're at home") and asked to write 900 words for the Comment pages about why gardeners love gardening. Two words sprang to mind immediately, but unfortunately one was unprintable.
So, to business. I haven't got enough flowers. Foliage is fine for me, but other people like a bit of floriferous activity, I find. I do have some hardy fuchsias and some pelargoniums, but I've given up hope of the cannas flowering this side of October. I will need to find some slug-proof blooms of some kind. Dahlias, unfortunately, aren't slug-proof enough, so it will probably be yet more crocosmia.

Looks fairly tranquil, doesn't it? A pity those two windowboxes either side of the small table are STILL waiting to be planted up...

The back border is a bit, um, unfocused. The bananas are doing well, but they're above head height. Some things have got chewed and don't look very good (mainly the heucherella, which I think I will replace with heuchera). On the lefthand side of the garden, the eucalyptus is out of control, aided and abetted by the fatsia, so everything has become very shaded. I must prune. On the right, the clematis I kindly supplied with clematis netting earlier in the year hasn't managed to cover it yet. How's that for gratitude? Will green plastic clematis netting show up against a dark brown fence? Probably.

The offending clematis netting. Another judiciously placed pot of Canna 'Pretoria' may take care of it

Is there anything that's doing really well? Yes, the goldfish. These are all named after characters from Lord of the Rings. (What can I say: teenage kids; Tolkien; go figure.) We started off with Gandalf, Galadriel, Frodo and Bilbo, and then they started breeding, so I've lost track of exactly which one is Merry, or Pippin, or Strider. To be honest, I could never keep track of exactly which character was which when I read the book. I'm sorry, but personally I'm not a Tolkien fan. Tolkien for me is a bit like Monty Don or Tony Blair: everyone else seems to love him, but I just don't see the appeal. However, if you're going to keep goldfish in your pond and want literary names for them, it's a good idea to choose a long book with lots of characters, or a profilic author like Dickens or Trollope to inspire your choice. The buggers breed like crazy.

The pond. Aka Hobbiton

The best thing, I find, when you're trying to make your garden look presentable, is to start with the obvious things. If you have a lawn, you'll want to mow it, but also make sure the edges are pristine and neatly clipped. It costs nothing (apart from an hour or so of your labour), and the whole garden will look instantly better.
Nigel Buckie, who opens for the NGS the same day as me (at 19 Montana Road, London SW17), was taken to task by two elderly ladies for not mowing his lawn the first year his garden went on display. "I hope you're going do better next year, young man," one said. "Next year," said Nigel, "that lawn won't even be there!" His backyard is now so full of plants - bananas, palms, tree ferns, hostas, hedychiums (ginger lilies) - that it acts as a kind of microclimate and he can grow things like strelitzia (bird of paradise) and leave them out all year.
I find that however lush your garden may be, there are inevitably gaps or, at the very least, boring bits. It's a good idea to have two or three (or several) things in pots on standby to fill these, and I try to choose plants that will look appropriate and not just plonked there. Think about grasses, or foliage, as they might blend in better (and give more lasting value for money). I use metal three-legged stands which make it easier to site a large pot in an existing bit of planting without squishing the perennials underneath.
Keep an eye out for weeds and if possible, get a friend to go round the garden with you beforehand. A fresh eye is always much better at spotting things such as the bindweed growing through the bamboo and the bramble that insists on erupting from beneath the holly tree.
The main aim as far as the NGS is concerned is to make as much money as possible for their charities. My main aim, however, is to ensure that people who come to visit the garden enjoy themselves. That means lashings of tea and a waistline-defying spread of coffee and walnut cake, lemon cheesecake, apple cake, carrot cake, lemon sponge and as many other things as I can think of, or cook, in the time available. It's lovely to be told that your garden looks good, but it's even nicer to see people having a thoroughly good time. I suppose I'd better go and get on with it.
For full details on the opening, go to the NGS website, look for the Garden Visiting page and type '28 Multon Road' into the Garden Name field.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Arte y Pico? Surely some mistake...

Mrs Be at Carrots and Kids has awarded me the Arte y Pico award. I'm amazed and delighted - I'm sure it's thoroughly undeserved. What's even more flattering is the fact that I rather admire Mrs Be and her ability to run an allotment, bring up five kids AND write a blog.

Here's the 5 rules bit for this award (which I copied faithfully from Mrs Be):

1. Choose 5 blogs you consider deserving of this award for their creativity, design, interesting material, and contribution to the blogging community, regardless of the language.

2. Each award should have the name of the author and a link to his/her blog to be visited by everyone.

3. Each award winner should show the award and put the name and link to the blog that presented him/her with the award.

4. The award winner and the one who has given the award should show the Arte y Pico blog so everyone will know the origin of this award. Translated, it means "the peak of art."

5. Show these rules.

Now here's the tricky bit. I have to find five peope whose blog is considered worthy of the accolade "Peak of Art". This is more difficult than it sounds, because so many of the blogs I like have already received it. And trying to check whether the other ones I like have already received it (but just don't happen to be displaying the logo) is going to a, fry my brain and b, take me all year. So here's my choice. And if they already happen to have this award, well, they're obviously doubly fabulous.

First, to Benjamin Vogt at The Deep Middle whose posts have provided my brain with an aerobic work-out. I don't think I've thought so hard about anything since Metaphysics II.

Two, Kate at The Manic Gardener for combining wit, charm and political passion.

Three, to Garden Monkey for giving me some of the best laugh-out-loud moments I've had since I started blogging.

Four, to Zoe at Garden Hopping for knowing much more than me about both blogging and gardening, but not making a huge deal about it.

Five, to VP at Veg Plotting, for services to singing. She seems to know a bit about gardening too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hampton Court: the edited highlights

So, to the Hampton Court press preview yesterday beneath an inky sky of thunderous intent. I did indeed get wet, several times, but it failed to detract from the general jollity of the occasion. Here are the highlights:
Best meeting and greeting moment: Being introduced to the star of the sock wars, James Alexander-Sinclair. (He was judging, so looked extremely smart. Unlike me.) And meeting Lila Das Gupta, and Camilla Swift, and saying hello to old friends like Cleve West.
Best dry moment: Sheltering under Emma Townshend's umbrella and sharing a slice of lemon cake with her in Floral Marquee 3.
Worst wet moment: Walking home from the station carrying two heavy hemerocallis in torrential rain.
Best veg moment: Michael Balston's vegetable gardens outside the Growing Tastes marquee. And the Dorset Cereals garden.
Most bizarre moment: Talking to Norman Willis, former secretary-general of the Trades Union Council, and now a monthly columnist for Cross Stitcher magazine. (US readers: this is equivalent to Jimmy Hoffa Jr joining the American Needlepoint Guild.) Emma and I met him while watching a performance artist pretend to be stung by a bee in Floral Marquee 1. You couldn't make it up ...
Best guerrilla moment: Meeting Richard Reynolds, who has pioneered the guerrilla gardening movement in south London, and who had created his entire show garden out of a skip and other exhibitors' cast-offs. (He now has a book out, called On Guerrilla Gardening, available on Amazon.
Worst gorilla moment: Staring at an enormous bronze statue of a gorilla and wondering: Why????
Best floral moment: Admiring Yorkshire grower Dave Parkinson's gorgeous Disa orchids, and listening to Dave and his wife Mary telling funny stories.
Best Dave Parkinson funny story: A friend of theirs breeds cymbidium orchids and on one occasion bred a very fine yellow variety, which he named 'Margaret Thatcher'. He couldn't sell it for love nor money. We all got the giggles at that one.
Best fashion moment: Seeing how many coats Rachel de Thame requires to present one broadcast.
Best learning moment: Talking to canna expert Keith Hayward in the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens marquee
Best conceptual garden moment: Forest2 (Forest Squared), by Ivan Tucker
Worst photographic moment: Trying and failing to photograph Forest2 by Ivan Tucker. It consisted of a grove of birch trees, beautifully planted to look like a forest glade, and surrounded on three sides by mirror. The effect was to multiply the image so you saw an unending forest stretching into the distance. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way of taking a picture that didn't include me reflected in the mirror, complete with hi-vis vest.
Worst photographic moment 2: The picture below. You probably can't see anything but it represents, from left, Emma Townshend, Camilla Swift, Lila Das Gupta and Cleve West.

Revenge of the euphorbia

I was crashing about in the undergrowth last Thursday, picking up dead fatsia leaves that had fallen on to things, and as I emerged from the border, I felt a strange burning sensation on my left leg. It wasn't agonising, just a vague burning, as if someone had applied a cream that had irritated my skin. I didn't really think anything of it, but by the time I'd been in the office all day, my lower leg and ankle had swelled so much, I could hardly walk. There was absolutely no itching at all, just pain, which was mainly caused by the swelling. I often react badly to mosquito bites, so when I got home, I took some antihistamine. After a night's sleep, and two antihistamines, the swelling had gone down a bit, but my leg still looked very red, so I went to the doc. (I had a bad bite last year, which got infected, and my whole arm swelled up, so I'm a bit twitchy about these things.)
The doc said it didn't look like an insect bite to him, and I agreed that I hadn't felt a sting, such as you might get from a wasp, and that I had felt the burning, which I wouldn't have got from a mosquito. He said it looked much more like an allergic reaction to some sort of plant, and his guess would be euphorbia, which leaves a distinctive red weal. We marked off the red area in pen, and he told me that if it spread beyond the marks, to take the antibiotics he gave me, and to try to keep my leg up to reduce the swelling.
There was some euphorbia where I'd been crashing around (E. amygdaloides 'Purpurea' to be precise) which I had cut back a couple of weeks earlier. Sensibly, I'd used rubber gloves when I cut it back, but stupidly, I'd forgotten it was there. I'm fairly sure that's what it was, as the euphorbia is the only plant in that area I can think of that is known to be a skin irritant.
By the time of this post, the swelling and the inflamed patch has gone down considerably, thanks to five days of antihistamines. You can just see the pen marks that showed how far the inflammation extended, but there's still a very obvious dark red mark on my leg which is where, I suspect, it rubbed against the euphorbia stems. I've posted the picture below as a warning to anyone like me who doesn't take the 'Toxic!' warnings on plant labels terribly seriously.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Happiness is a day at Hampton Court

It's the eve of the Hampton Court Flower Show, and thus a moment to celebrate in the gardening year. (The show opens on Tuesday to RHS members: the public gets in from Thursday). The world may be more familiar with the Chelsea Flower Show, but British gardeners, especially those in the south, love Hampton Court. I've always found this rather intriguing. I can understand why many people have a love-hate relationship with Chelsea. It's a top show, they agree, but it can be a bit of an ordeal. Too many people, they say, too many wacky show gardens, too many stands selling tasteless/expensive/unnecessary gardening accessories.
Hampton Court also attracts crowds of people. Its show gardens tend to be far wackier (sorry, conceptual), than Chelsea's. And it is stuffed with stands selling garden accessories, including a huge Country Living marquee that, as far as I can see, sells nothing but clothes. Yet we love it. It's partly, I think, because it has the atmosphere of a traditional English village fete (albeit on quite a large scale). The showground is three times bigger than Chelsea's too, so it seems more spacious. It has a fabulous setting, beneath the nose of Henry VIII's spectacular palace, and beside the Thames, which by the time it gets to Hampton Court, has taken on a more benign, leafy, cygnets-and-ducklings aspect. Saturday and Sunday are family days, so good for taking children. Most important of all for gardeners, however, you can buy plants. (At Chelsea, you can only place orders, which may make you feel like Vita Sackville-West as you grandly order your bulbs, but is slightly lacking in the instant gratification department.)
So what are the highlights this year? For me, the Plant Heritage marquee, run by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens is always worth a look, as they usually have around a dozen National Collections holders who are more than happy to talk about their chosen species. Last year, there was a Rubus National Collection with not only ornamental brambles, such as the white-stemmed Rubus cockburnianus, but also amazing things that you wouldn't even recognise as being related to the humble blackberry. I've never had the slightest desire to plant brambles in my garden, but came away determined to instal at least three R. Cockburnianus until I came to my senses and realised I didn't actually want to re-enact a scene from Sleeping Beauty every time I went outside. Fantastic in the right place, though, and that's what makes the Plant Heritage exhibits so interesting. You have the chance to find out about things you'd never normally see or seek out.
Hampton Court regulars might like to note that the Plant Heritage marquee has changed places this year: it's now on the right as you enter from the Thames gate, to make way for the Meteorological Office's Climate Change Dome, which I'm dying to visit. I'm hoping Emma from A Nice Green Leaf will rendezvous with me there as we intend to have our picture taken with at least one BBC weather forecaster.
There's a big emphasis on fruit and veg this year, with a Growing Tastes marquee that will include the RHS summer fruit and veg show, cookery demonstrations and kitchen gardens: no less than three of them, showcasing British, Asian and Mediterranean produce. There's also a bit of a Thai thing going on along the Long Water, with a floating market consisting of genuine boats shipped in from Bangkok by the Thai tourist board. I think that's got to be a must-see, don't you?
One of the reasons I love Hampton Court is that it's one of the few places you can find a congregation (perhaps that should be a shoal) of water-garden nurseries without having to travel miles out of London. I always head for Lilies, based near Reigate, which is where I got the Nymphaea 'Highlight' for my pond that is pictured (rather incredibly inexpertly) below. It was in flower today for the first time this year, which I like to think is its way of celebrating Hampton Court. Mine involves a large Pimms.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Garden Bloggers' Muse Day: Virgil and his bees

Fired with enthusiasm following the success of the Big Green Leaf, I thought I'd get involved in yet another celebration: Garden Bloggers' Muse Day, which is the brainchild of Carolyn at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.
This is a poem, but it doesn't read like poetry, because it is a translation (not many people these days read Latin fluently, including me). It is from Virgil's Georgics. Virgil was born in 70BC near Mantua in Italy and the Georgics celebrate his love of country life and farming. This extract, from the fourth book, gives advice on keeping bees. It seemed to me to be appropriate, given that there is grave concern currently about the health of bees and issues such as Colony Collapse Disorder. And when I read it, I am transported to a sunny, scented Italy centuries ago.

Let clear springs be near, and moss-green pools, and a tiny brook stealing through the grass;
and let a palm or huge wild olive shade the porch, so that, when the new kings lead forth the early swarms in the spring they love, and the youth revel in their freedom from the combs, a bank nearby may tempt them to quit the heat and a tree in their path may hold them in its sheltering leafage.
In the midst of the water, whether it stand idle or flow onward, cast willows athwart and huge stones, that they may have many bridges whereon to halt and spread their wings to the summer sun, if haply the East wind has sprinkled the loiterers or with swift gust has plunged them in the flood.
Åll about let green cassia bloom, and wild thyme with fragrance far borne, and a wealth of strong-scented savory; and let violet-beds drink of the trickling spring.