Sunday, September 28, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
I wonder how many of our gardens, like so much else in our lives, are affected by our early years? Not just planting seeds with Grandad, or playing in the back garden, but all our other childhood experiences as well? When I wrote a post a few days ago about how our memories affect us as gardeners (or even turn us into gardeners), VP said something in a comment that I thought was fascinating. She said: "I haven't a clue where my gardening bug came from - it just re-emphasises the feeling I've had since a child that I'm a changeling."
I'm dying to find out what she means by that, because I used to think the same when I was a child. Well, not that I was a changeling exactly: I thought that I was adopted. My twin sister looks dramatically different from me, and my brother, three years younger, looks very much like her. It wasn't until my younger sister came along that I realised someone else in the family looked like a bit like I did. Today, of course, I can see a family resemblance between me and my parents. A physical resemblance, that is: in terms of personality, we're quite different.
I grew up in a rather bohemian household. My father's jazz band often rehearsed at home and I have a vivid memory of coming home from school with my twin sister on our fifth birthday, and the band playing a Dixieland version of Happy Birthday To You. (I burst into tears, I'm not quite sure why. Embarrassment, I think.)
Another early memory is of our chimney catching fire one night. It was always catching fire, because no one ever seemed to arrange for it to be swept. I remember hanging out of the window of the nursery watching the firemen rush about outside the house and caught sight of a figure in a duffel coat carrying a trombone. It was my father, coming home from a gig. He took one look at the unfolding drama (flames! frantic activity! flashing blue lights!), turned around and went away again. When I tell people this story now, they're shocked but I thought it was very funny.
My mother was and still is an indefatigable party person. She once invited the entire cast of Black Nativity, the Gospel nativity show that had come to London after its triumphant debut on Broadway, back to the house. She'd been to see the show several times and taken lots of jazz musician friends, and she had become quite friendly with the cast. They'd told her how much they missed real Southern food and she suggested they come round to our place and cook up a storm.
For what seemed like a week, but was probably only a day, the house seemed full of women singing and laughing and cooking ladies' fingers (okra) and cornbread and other soul food delights. I'd never seen okra before, and I still measure cornbread by that freshly baked version.
In the meantime, the musical director, Professor Alex Bradford, sat down at the piano with us kids and amused us with fabulous Gospel renditions of nursery favourites such as Baa Baa Black Sheep. Members of the choir would wander in and join in. For years, I wanted to be either a Gospel pianist or sing in a Gospel choir. (Secretly, I still do.)
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I longed for normality. Like Saffy, the daughter in the comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, I yearned for the sort of life that followed a predictable pattern, where people did "normal" things like cut the grass every Sunday afternoon. Unlike Saffy, I didn't resent the fact that my mother worked or had a whirlwind lifestyle - I regarded her as one of the most glamorous people I knew - but you could never tell whether she was going to be at home or tearing around London on her Lambretta.
We never seemed to have a conventional car. At one stage, we had a secondhand ambulance, which admittedly came in very useful for camping holidays, but wasn't what you'd call an average family runabout. We never had any money, so our huge, shambolic Victorian house was always full of lodgers who ranged from charming to mad as a box of frogs. Add six or seven lodgers to four children, and as you can imagine, we spent a lot of time making beds.
Looking back, I think my childhood was quite exciting and that I was an ungrateful little minx for wanting something different. But I also now recognise that this rather unpredictable lifestyle, which ended with my parents' divorce, left me not with a desire to be "normal" so much as an urge to impose order on chaos.
I think that's why I enjoy the humdrum garden chores so much: mowing the lawn, tying stems to canes, sweeping up leaves, deadheading things. They don't involve a lot of stress or intellectual debate, but you notice a very satisfying difference when they're done. It's certainly why I'm a sucker for reality shows such as House Doctor or Ground Force: anything, indeed, in which someone comes in and takes charge and sorts everything out.
I realise this makes me sound like an unbearable control freak or neatnik. OK, it's true. I admit to being a control freak, and my colleagues would certainly say I'm a neatnik (mine is the only desk where you can see the original surface), but I'm not obsessed with neatness to the point that I regard gardening as an alfresco form of housework. I just like to know that there's a plan or, perhaps more importantly, some kind of logic underpinning the project. I like rhythm - plants or shapes repeated again and again - and structure, and some thought given to shape.
If everything is ultra-neat - or if everything is running wild - you lose any sense of drama, in my opinion. You need a bit of both to make things exciting. I think there is something wonderful about the contrast between neatly clipped lawn edges, or box hedges, and riotous borders that spill voluptuously over their boundaries.
I think that's why gravel gardens can work well: the gravel acts as a kind of recurring theme, or bass line, while billowing plants make solo appearances along the way. Foliage plants, especially tall ones such as phormiums or exclamation-mark cypresses, might act as punctuation, so that instead of taking in the garden in one sentence, as it were, you are made to focus on the individual words.
Fabulous gardens are a bit like the best parties, when you come to think about it. All the plants are dressed in their finest, determined to have a good time. Some of the guests are in gorgeous frocks, others in the horticultural equivalent of Little Black Dresses, or suits. There should be at least one person who's funny or outrageous, and someone who knows all the gossip.
When you go to a party, however wild or informal it may appear, someone has usually thought to organise music and drinks and food, even if it's only a couple of sticks of French bread, a slab of Brie and some red plonk from the supermarket. You're not aware of the organisation, though, you're just intent on enjoying yourself. That's my kind of garden. Perhaps deep inside the neatnik there's a bohemian party animal struggling to get down and boogie.
Friday, September 19, 2008
I've used the recycled ones, which are a bit controversial as they're full of preservative and leak tar. This doesn't seem to affect the plants, but you're not supposed to use them in areas where children might clamber over them (in a play area, for example) as the preservatives are said to be carcinogenic. As a pergola, I reckon they'll be OK (unless someone decides to come along and hug them).
You can buy new sleepers which are completely safe, but they're very different: plain and square and much lighter in colour. This can look really, really good, especially in a geometric, contemporary garden design, but because I've already got old ones, I worry that the new ones might look a bit out of place.
I'll probably order mine from www.railwaysleeper.com, who are based near Nottingham, but will deliver nationwide (there are full details and examples on the website). They charge something like £60 to make a delivery to London, which is fair enough given how heavy the things are. You just have to be absolutely sure about your order: it's not as if they can just nip back and get another one...
There are three great things about railwaysleeper.com. First, they have a huge selection of sleepers, in a range of woods from Dutch oak to African azobe, with clear details on sizing and pricing.
Second, in my experience, they are incredibly friendly and helpful. The site itself is full of useful information but if you email them with a query, they get back to you very quickly.
Best of all, however, they have the most astonishing selection of photographs sent in by customers. There are literally hundreds: I counted 74 entries in the Raised Beds section alone. Then there are sections on water features, decking and patios, steps, retaining walls and even furniture. Do check out the furniture - you'll be amazed.
Even if you don't want to buy railway sleepers, it's fun having a look at all the projects, especially if you're looking for inspiration. You just have to remember to allow at least an hour while you flick through ...
Monday, September 15, 2008
Sunday, September 14, 2008
None of these statements is true. It is not their trampoline, we inherited it from the previous owners of the house. They do not play on it (at 14 and 18, they're getting a bit old for it anyway). And the garden, in my view, does not have nearly enough plants. So I am trying not to listen to these pleading voices, but instead making plans for what will go there instead.
I have in mind a kind of chunky pergola. I want it to be chunky partly because I already have lots of railway sleepers in the garden and anything too spindly will look a bit twee. I also want to be able to hang a hammock from it, as a kind of compensation for the trampoline, and the moment I put up a hammock there will be four teenagers in it before you can say "maximum weight restriction".
The tall planting that currently screens the trampoline will be replaced by something lower, probably a mixture of ferns, libertia, hardy geraniums and things that do well in fairly dry shade. The pergola will be like a table without a top, with a support at each corner, braced by horizontal beams. Inside, there will be an area big enough to house a lounger or a small table and chairs, with an entrance to one side through the planting, like a kind of keyhole garden. (I'm indebted to Karen at An Artist's Garden for this last bit of inspiration.)
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I thought I'd share this illustration with those of you who can't or don't get The Independent. It's by Emma Brownjohn, who illustrates my column, City Life, which appears on Wednesdays in the Property section. I've never met Emma, but we communicate electronically and I sometimes send her photographs of things I'm writing about, so that she has a visual reference.
This is her interpretation of my garden open day. That's me in the foreground, in a flowery dress and white trousers. Emma has managed to make me look tall and slim, with sleek hair that never frizzes. This takes true artistry, I can assure you.
I feel very privileged to have her work accompanying my column as she always seems to take such enormous pains to interpret whatever I'm wittering on about.
Emma graduated from Camberwell College of Art in London in 1992 and her work includes paintings and murals as well as illustrations. You can find out more about her and see some of her work here.
She's also currently having an exhibition entitled Following Rivers. at the Ingo Fincke gallery, 24 Battersea Rise, London SW11 (www.ingofincke.com), from 10.30am to 5.30pm until 17 September, and she'll be at the Brighton Art Fair from Friday 19 September to Sunday 21 September.
The long-range forecast offers little respite. As far as I can see, it's going to rain until December. I long for a bright blue sky, for a morning that sparkles with wintry anticipation, a day that makes you sniff the air as your nose tingles with the scent of woodsmoke and bonfires. It's not going to happen any time soon.
Things do change, though. At times like this, when the weather patterns seem out of kilter or just downright depressing, you find yourself making comparisons. What was it like this time last year? How has the garden altered? Did this do better last year? Did that flower earlier? So I thought it would be fun to post some pictures and see.
The photograph above is the same one as the one at the top of this blog, taken last August, 2007. I'm sure the crocosmia lasted longer last year. This year they seemed to come and go in a blink-and-you'll-miss them flurry of colour. You can't see a single one in the picture below, which was taken this morning. And last year's red 'Empress of India' nasturtiums made a much more flamboyant show than this year's yellow 'Banana Split'. (I had a bit of a yellow moment this summer.) Was that because of the variety? Or because of the weather? No prizes for guessing which one I'll grow next year.
This is a much more dramatic change, because there are five years between the picture above, taken today, and the picture below, taken in the autumn of 2003, the year we moved in. We thought the phormium was big then, but it's even bigger now. And everything looks fluffier somehow. Fluffy is good.
Here's another contrast. The picture above was taken today. The picture below was taken in 2003. Note the absence of sunshine in today's picture. Not to mention the absence of cushions. Just behind these chairs is a tangle of jasmine and Campsis radicans. The campsis is like one of those very cautious motorists who takes 10 minutes to get into first gear when the traffic lights change. By the time it's worked out that it's actually summer, it's usually late September, so we get a brief flourish of gorgeous red-orange flowers before it shivers back into hibernation. This year, we won't get anything because it just hasn't been sunny or hot enough, but it's managed to grow all over everything around it nonetheless. It shows you how little I've been able to sit in the garden this year, because normally it would have been right under my eye, and under control.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
I love the idea of sharing the garden, of course. Chris4trees left a very nice comment on the previous post about the jolly atmosphere at our Open Garden day, and I said in my reply that I liked opening the garden because I enjoyed seeing people having a good time, stuffing themselves with cake and chatting about plants and gardens, both mine and theirs.
Most of the time, however, there is no one in my garden apart from me, and I love the feeling of solitude and peace just as much, along with the smell of damp earth, and mown grass, and sun-warmed lavender and box. Where does all this come from?
Memory one. When I was little, we lived in deeply unfashionable Croydon, which at that time was shaking off its sleepy, suburban past and constructing a new image of glass and concrete. As hemlines soared in the Sixties, the skyscrapers rocketed up in Croydon, with the old Edwardian and Victorian houses giving way to office blocks and employment bureaus.
Our old house is still there, but the houses up the road were compulsorily purchased by the local council to make way for new law courts. At one point, as is the nature of these things, they stood empty, the lovingly tended gardens with their rockeries and hybrid teas left to go wild. You could get into these gardens from a footpath that led along the railway line and to me they seemed a magical world, carpeted with snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) and aubrieta, and buzzing with bees.
Despite being so close to the centre of Croydon, we also had access to parks and open spaces. There was a park at the top of our road, and a footpath led from that park to Lloyds Park, where there were bluebell woods. Another favourite was Coombe Wood, also a public park, with fabulous gardens.
Memory two. My mother used to teach at Worth, a Benedictine boarding school in the Sussex countryside. Each year, when I was small, we used to go to what must have been speech day, or prize day or something. Worth is a monastery, a stone-built mullion-windowed place that looks out over rolling fields and woods. I remember the smell of the immaculate lawns, the huge cedars that overhung them, and the marquees with what seemed like endless plates of cream cakes.
Memory three. We moved to Scotland when I was still quite small and by the time I moved back to London I was in my twenties. My mother had bought a flat near Camden Lock, just down the road from the Camden Garden Centre, which at that time was run with great enthusiasm and flair by Adam Caplin. We spent a lot of time - and money - in the Camden Garden Centre, which became one of my favourite places.
Not only was it a fantastic garden centre, it was a great place for celeb-spotting. (Camden is achingly right-on: our next-door neighbour was the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.) One of my favourite memories is discussing bearded irises with Denholm Elliott (Trading Places, Indiana Jones, A Room with a View etc, etc etc).
I'd always loved gardens but this was my first introduction to the idea of making a garden myself. There's a pattern emerging here. First, I suppose I associate gardens, particularly those that are fairly secluded, with being happy and at peace.
Second, I love the idea of gardens that are a little wild around the edges, and stuffed full of plants. Bare earth makes me feel a bit nervous.
Third, as someone who has spent all their working life in newspaper offices, coping with deadlines, late changes of mind and stories breaking at the last minute, I love the idea of being part of something that has its own timetable, an agenda that refuses steadfastly to take into account the wishes of man or woman.
Finally, I find I have an increasing need to be outside, breathing fresh air, looking at trees and grass instead of concrete and glass. Perhaps this is the result of being office-bound, or city-bound: I don't know. That's enough introspection for one day.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Since raising money for the NGS is the whole point of opening my garden, I thought I'd post a reminder of what it's all about. Those of you who already know, look away now and I apologise for boring you.
The National Gardens Scheme was set up in 1927 to raise money for the Queen's Nursing Institute, which provided pensions for district nurses. Until that time, if you wanted to visit a garden such as Sissinghurst or Hidcote, you really had to be a friend of the owner (in other words, somebody rich or aristocratic).
Individuals - including Vita Sackville-West - were asked to open their private gardens to the public for"a shilling a head". In the first year 609 opened and raised over £8,000. The scheme was a fantastic success, partly because for the first time, members of the public could see behind the high walls and yew hedges of some of the most spectacular gardens in the UK.
Some of those gardens, many now owned by the National Trust, still open for the NGS each year (although the entry fee is now a little bit more expensive). Today the NGS raises around £2 million a year and benefits a range of charities, but with a general emphasis on cancer care (MacMillan Cancer Relief, Marie Curie Cancer Care, and Help The Hospices are three NGS beneficiaries).
Over the years, small gardens have joined the big showstoppers, so that the public can see a very wide range of designs and ideas; from a tiny garden inspired by Pompeii and ancient Rome in Bristol, to the superb topiary at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. All these gardens are listed in the annual directory, known as the Yellow Book, which costs £7.99 and is published each year in early spring.
This year, the NGS introduced a new Friends scheme, so even if you don't open your garden, you can still feel part of the fund-raising effort. The website (see link above) gives full details.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
The rain began as we had breakfast and continued for a couple of hours, leaving the bamboos bent over the terrace, ready to drip all over our visitors. You don't know how much rain bamboo can hold until you accidentally brush against it: it's like having a cold shower. All thoughts of a last tidy-up disappeared, and as a final irritation, a squirrel swinging wildly on one of the bird feeders managed to tip seed all over the terrace.
It was a struggle not to be pessimistic about the weather, and whether it would put people off, but we carried on regardless, icing cakes, and setting out chairs and tables. I'd had a surprise bouquet from Jane, a card from Zoe, and an email from Garden Monkey, all wishing me good luck, so that cheered me up.
The first visitors arrived at 1.45pm. We weren't due to open until 2pm, but we were so glad to see them, we welcomed them with open arms (and dripping bamboo). Visitors are all very different. Some ask lots of questions, others like to go round on their own. Some are jolly, some intensely serious. A couple of early visitors yesterday looked at me with deep suspicion when I introduced myself, so I left them to it. As the day wore on, I found, people became more and more chatty, so that when friends arrived, I hardly had a minute to talk to them and felt very rude.
Last year, I'd forgotten to provide a list of plants, and spent the whole afternoon repeating myself like a broken record as I told people the same information over and over again. This year, I wrote a guide, protected by plastic folders, so people could carry it around the garden with them. Still got lots of questions, though, but that was fine. Many people were fascinated by the heron deterrent, Netfloat, and whether it worked or not (it does). I'd read somewhere, when I built my pond, that herons need a long landing strip, as it were, and that they liked to wade into water, so a raised bed would deter them. It's not true. I've seen a heron descend on the seating area around my pond like a Harrier jump jet coming into land on an aircraft carrier.
The bananas also received a lot of attention as did the Arundo donax, the phormiums and the Montezuma pine. Anna Pavord, in her piece in Saturday's Independent Magazine, said our Phormium tenax was the biggest one she'd ever seen. It's so big people are never very sure whether it really is a phormium.
Some visitors come from miles away and others come from neighbouring streets. It's always lovely to meet people who live locally, not least because you can exchange information about garden conditions, and allotments, and local gossip. Yet others, like Paola, who's from Brazil but now lives in London, I met because she stopped to photograph the bamboo outside the house one day.
During the months of preparation, you tend to forget what fun the opening actually is. It's a bit like a huge party, but instead of having to make small talk to strangers, you have the luxury of being able to spend an afternoon chatting to fellow enthusiasts about gardening - and raise money for charity at the same time. By the time we closed at 6pm, we'd had 120 visitors and raised a total of around £400.
I'd like to say a big thank-you to my husband Craig, who sat in solitary state in the front garden all afternoon selling tickets, to my daughter Nevada, who with her best friends Eliza and Jake served the tea and home-made cakes, to my colleague, Independent on Sunday gardening writer Emma Townshend, who also contributed the most delicious cakes, to Cleve West, who supplied nearly all the pictures below (because for obvious reasons I didn't have time to take any myself), to my stepdaughter Holly, who brought loads of friends along, and to all our friends who supported us not only yesterday but through all the moments of angst over the past months.
The Netfloat heron deterrent on display in the pond. It consists of plastic rings that link together (you can also cut the centres out to make room for plants if you need to). As the name suggests, it simply floats on the surface of the water, so it's easy to remove if you need to take it out to do some pond maintenance
A view of visitors in the garden from the table area. The empty feeder in the foreground is the one the swinging squirrel managed to empty all over the ground
The cakes, a vital part of any garden visit, I think. Craig's homemade tablet is on the table on the left: it proved extremely popular
That's me on the right, in the flowery dress. Emma took this picture and very kindly hid most of me behind a visitor. My concession to the weather was not blow-drying my hair, so I look like the Witch of Endor crossed with a Cath Kidston catalogue. By the way, that's not blue sky in the background, but black cloud