Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yay, summer's on its way

OK, so the economy's rubbish and we're all about to get swine flu. And house prices are down again, and there's still no sign of anyone inventing completely calorie-free chocolate biscuits. 
But according to the Met Office, it's going to be a long hot summer. Hurray!
I knew this, of course, because the oak tree in next door's garden is in leaf, while the ash tree has yet to burgeon.
Oak before ash, in for a splash. Ash before oak, in for a soak.
It sounds like complete drivel, doesn't it? It sounds as if it's going to rain whatever happens. However, the idea is that with a splash, you just get a few showers, but with a soak it pours with rain for months on end.
I only heard this proverb for the first time last year and anxiously inspected the oak and the ash throughout spring 2008. Sure enough, the ash came into leaf first - not by much, but enough to be noticeable. It rained all summer, as you may recall.
However, if you think that oak and ash are puzzling, have a look at these. I found them on a BBC site and I thought I'd share my favourites:

If you sneeze three times within a few seconds, the next day will be sunny.
Er, I don't think so. If you sneeze three times within a few seconds at the moment, people will ask you if you've been on holiday in Mexico and give you a wide berth. I suppose the origin of this is that people tend to get hay fever in good weather, hence the sneezing, so it might be true.

Aiming a raspberry at the sky will lead to crop failure.
Why would anyone want to aim a raspberry at the sky? Especially if it leads to crop failure? And why a raspberry? What would happen if it was an apple or a pomegranate? (A. It would fall on your head and you wouldn't have to puzzle over it any more.)

The first frost in autumn will be exactly six months after the first thunderstorm of spring.
This may well be true. But while I will cheerfully admit to being a bit of a weather obsessive, even I am not sad enough to record the date and time of the first thunderstorm of spring. So I'll probably never know how accurate a prediction this is.

If you live in Wales and you build dry-stone walls, the rainy weather always appals.
This made me think of Karen at An Artist's Garden. I think it's a polite way of saying it rains all the time in Wales.

What are your favourite weather proverbs? The more bizarre the better. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Help for Heroes

I know it's a little early to start the Chelsea previews, but this is in a good cause. One of the show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show this year is by the charity Help for Heroes, designed by Drusilla Stewart and William Beresford of  All Seasons Design, and sponsored by B&Q.
Help for Heroes was started in 2007 to provide support to the wounded servicemen and women of the UK. They now raise approximately £1 million a month and provide direct help to those wounded and their families. You can read more about what they do on their 
The garden will be a symbolic sanctuary, where those who do not return safely can find focus and the peace with which to deal with either physical or mental trauma after the ordeal of operations.
Drusilla's own husband is going to Afghanistan in May and the design was conceived after chatting to the wives of servicemen whose husbands are about to deploy with him.  
Drusilla says B&Q have generously given money to help them build the garden, but now that they are about to start building the garden at Chelsea, they are calling on friends, family and business contacts to help them reach their fundraising target of £30,000 for Help for Heroes .
If you would like to help, you can do so in two ways. Go to the
fundraising page and make a donation. Or buy a limited edition Petunia 'Help for Heroes Mix' at B&Q stores. £2.35 from every £5 pack will go to the charity, and the flowers will be in the stores in the week commencing Monday 18 May (Chelsea Flower Show week).
If anyone is going to the show, Help the Heroes will be giving away wristbands and badges, and encouraging visitors to donate money into the “Wishing Well", and they will also be selling plants from the garden when the show ends on Saturday 24 May.
The “Help for Heroes Sanctuary Garden” itself will also be auctioned off at the end of the show and the hope is that a green-fingered philanthropist will come along and donate a big chunk of money to have the garden recreated in their own backyard. The design can be adapted to any sized garden, domestic or commercial.

The Chelsea Flower Show runs from 19 to 23 May. For further information on the show, or to purchase tickets, click here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sending out an SOS

Help! I'm having that spring thing. You know, frantic bursts of activity followed by agonies of indecision, amnesia, panic and frantic rushing to the computer to look things up on the internet. If anyone wants to offer advice, please, please do.

1 Should I cut back the Muhlenbergia dumosa? Should I have cut it back in January? What did Knoll Gardens tell me to do when I bought it? Why do I never remember these things? Shall I just trim off the bits that look dead and hope for the best? Frances and Pam will know. Let's hope they read this. I thought it had died in the cold, but it seems to be drifting back to wispy life. Should I buy some more? I do rather love it. Should I keep it in a pot? Should I put it in a bigger pot?

2 What about the Pleioblastus auricomus? Was it Will Giles who said you should cut this down like a perennial each year? Someone did, I think it was Will, but of course, I now can't find that information anywhere. I've done it anyway. Dare I plant it in the ground? Architectural Plants have it growing in the ground, but clipped to within an inch of its life. It might look good underneath the cordyline on the new bit of garden. Or should I keep it in a pot?

3 What on earth is this plant? Where did I get it from? Who gave it to me? Why have the squirrels dug it all up? (Because they are evil little b******, that's why.) I must have known what it was at some stage, because I put it in this pot. I don't remember any of this.

4 Should I buy colourful bedding pelargoniums or should I just stick to the scented-leaf sort? Should I have a single-colour scheme or (start hyperventilating) mixed colours? No, don't answer that one, I know I'll never do mixed colours. That involves more than one decision.

5 Will I ever get around to planting the other things I have bought, which at this point consist of: lemon thyme, standard lavender and six assorted scented-leaf geraniums (these all need putting in pots); two Aquilegia vulgaris 'Purple Emperor'; Lobelia tupa; a rather gorgeous fern called Pteris cretica that I fell in love with at Architectural Plants; two Geranium macrorrhizum album, two Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem'. I think that's it. I hope that's it.

5 Should I put the sorbaria in pots? I bought them in memory of my husband, who loved rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia). The Scottish folk song, The Rowan Tree, was one of his favourites. My garden is too small, and too crowded, to fit in a grown-up rowan, so the sorbaria are a lovely substitute, with rosy gold-flushed leaves in spring. They do well in a pot, apparently, and I'd be able to take them with me if I moved.

6 Should I prune my hebes (Hebe parviflora angustifolia)? I saw them clipped into rather nice globes (big globes) at Architectural Plants' Chichester branch the other day, which inspired me to try the same. Came home and thought: "Maybe not". One thing I do know though. These hebes hate being in a pot.

7 Should I try growing coleus (solenostemon) this year? I've only tried growing it as a houseplant in a cold dark flat. It wasn't a success.

8 Will I ever plant my seeds? I'm telling myself that there's no point sowing things like Mina lobata and Ipomoea until late spring anyway. Is this a pathetic excuse?

9 Nine? How on earth did I get to nine, for heaven's sake?

10 Should I just shut up and get on with some gardening?

There are a couple of themes emerging here, I think you'll agree. First, I am a complete coward. Not always - I have been known to lift crowns and do other bits of radical rejigging - but quite often. Sometimes I'm cowardly when it comes to pruning, but most often I chicken out when it comes to planting things in the ground. I have a kind of compulsion to put things in pots. Is this an urban gardener thing?
Second, I am incredibly indecisive. Things in my garden get moved more often than pieces on a chessboard. You can tell I'm a Libran, can't you?
Third... well, you tell me. I'm off to tidy the shed in a bid to avoid thinking about planting things.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thinking outside the box

I can quite see that flowers are lovely. I love irises, with their hand-painted patterns, and the texture of rose petals, and all the streaks and stripes and spots and tattoos that adorn things like hellebores, tulips and foxgloves. 
However, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than new spring growth. Newborn leaves that stretch and slowly unfold, like a baby's fist. Creased leaves that smooth themselves out, like a bridesmaid in a silk dress. Bright perky little leaves, like the faces of children in their first kindergarten class. Fabulous.
Traditionally in the UK, box is trimmed on Derby Day, which means the first week of June. I can't bear to cut my box then. It still looks too new and fresh. I leave it until July, when it starts to darken up.

The new leaves of Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' turn from russet to pale green

 Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum' unfolds its fan-like leaves. They look as if they were made using an origami technique

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Honey, I shrunk the trampoline

It's gone. At last, the trampoline has gone. Actually, to be scrupulously honest, it's stacked up in the side passage, but it is out of the garden. I'd been looking forward to this moment for ages, but idiot that I am, I felt quite sad once I'd dismantled it, and had to have a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit to cheer myself up.
I think it was something to do with saying goodbye to my children's childhood. My son is now 19 and my daughter is 15 next Monday, so they're past the age of wanting to run around with their friends in the garden. But it still gave me a bit of a pang to think of all those birthday parties with gleeful little faces bouncing up and down.
Pull yourself together, woman! Onwards and upwards: what is going in its place? Well, there will be a shady seating area of some kind. My daughter wants three low benches built out of decking, with one of those brazier things, so she and her friends can sit around on summer evenings gossiping.
Sounds good, apart from the decking benches, which would require woodworking skills above and beyond my capabilities. Still, I might be able to persuade the timber yard to cut the decking to length for me. And I might be able to buy some oak sleepers or cubes to use as supports. And I might be able to persuade my brother-in-law to come round and help (he has a chainsaw). Hmmm. 

The new seating area. Most of the things poking up in this border are in pots, waiting for me to redo the whole thing. The spiky plants (the only things in the ground) are Libertia grandiflora. The broom is 'Zeelandia' and it is going. I just couldn't resist letting it have one last flower this spring - I've already cut it back by half. Brooms are fairly short-lived and this one has got too leggy (to help hide the trampoline), so I don't feel too guilty. I might get another one though, perhaps a white one.

I also thought you might like to see this. It's Bergenia 'Ballawley' which is quite a big bergenia, so looks very tropical in the summer. As you can see, the leaves are as high as the 'Geranium' narcissi. It's in a fairly shady spot.
I planted this a couple of years ago, and wasn't very impressed at first. It didn't flower, and in winter, when the leaves are supposed to "flush purple", it went the most disgusting shade of puce. In fact, it was more puke than puce. But this year, the new leaves have got their act together fairly early and the flowers - the first-ever - have lived up to the description of  "bright magenta". 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The flower market, minus Eliza Doolittle

New Covent Garden Flower Market, photographed last year. That's not me on the left, by the way. Neither is it Eliza Doolittle

Owen asked me the other day if I would say a bit more about New Covent Garden Flower Market. I mentioned in my last post that I'd been there last week, and I know a lot of people are rather intimidated by the thought of going themselves. Will they have to buy flowers by the lorryload? Is it cash only? Are private individuals allowed in, or do you have to be in the trade?
For those of you who don't know, New Covent Garden is London's fresh produce market, providing fruit, vegetables and flowers to the capital's traders. Not meat or fish, though, those are still sold at Smithfield and Billingsgate.
In the olden days, from the 16th century onwards, the flower, fruit and veg market was located in the original Covent Garden, beside what is now the Royal Opera House (also, confusingly, known as Covent Garden). If anyone has seen the film My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn, it's where Eliza Doolittle plied her trade as a flower girl.
However, in 1974, the markets left their old home for Nine Elms Lane in Vauxhall to become New Covent Garden. It's not as romantic a setting (and there is absolutely no sign of any flower girls) but it is much easier to get pantechnicons in and out of Nine Elms than it was to manoeuvre them round the narrow streets of Covent Garden.

How do I get there?
The Flower Market is separate from the fruit and veg bit, so if you're going by car, it's best to approach from the Vauxhall one-way system or Wandsworth Road, travelling west (ie towards Battersea Dogs' Home). Look for the slip road on the left, just as you get onto Nine Elms Lane.
Parking costs £4 per car, and they like you to have the right money if possible. They'll give you a thing to hang over your rear-view mirror to show you've paid. Make sure you display it, or you might get clamped.
If you want to go by public transport, it's about a 10-minute walk from Vauxhall station (mainline and Underground), and dozens of buses stop at Vauxhall. Remember, tube and train services won't be running very early in the morning, though, so probably worth going by car. The market itself is not in the congestion charge zone.

When is it open?
The market opens at 3am, and shuts at 11am Monday to Friday and is open 4am to 10am on Saturdays. The best time to go is about 6-7am and best days to go are midweek - Wednesday or Thursday, as it's not quite so busy then, but there's still a really good selection.

What are the vendors like?
In my experience, the stall-holders are extremely friendly and helpful. ("Can I leave this stuff here while I take the other lot out to the car?" "Course you can, love") Try to have a vague idea what you want before you approach them, as they don't really have time to stand around while people dither. Don't try to haggle with them, either - they don't really appreciate it. This is the wholesale end of the trade, so the mark-ups aren't high. And keep your feet out of the way! You'll find there are trolleyloads of plants constantly going backwards and forwards, though you do a get a shouted warning: "Bums and tums, ladies!"

I thought it was trade-only?
It's a fairly safe bet that you won't be the only ordinary punter there. Lots of church flower arrangers go there to buy stuff because it's much cheaper. The week before Easter, when I went, it was particularly busy with church ladies, all earnestly discussing the merits of zantedeschia over oriental lilies (zants don't stain surplices, but lilies smell so lovely) and whether to restrict the colour palette to yellow and white, or perhaps add a bit of blue or pink ... 

What sort of flowers will I find?
Every kind you can think of, plus a few you've never heard of, depending on the season. There might be English-grown cottage-garden flowers alongside orchids and other exotica, such as heliconia (lobster-claw flower) and strelitzia (bird of paradise). If you're worried about how long things will last, the stall holders are usually really good about telling you which are today's flowers and which are yesterday's. They don't mind you feeling the flowers either to see if they're fresh and firm. Aim for Door 10 (nearest the car park entrance) and start there.

And greenery?
Usually sold separately, unless it is soft flowering stuff like guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). Varies from boughs of flowering cherry to huge palm leaves, and includes mosses and phormium leaves, pittosporum and good old ruscus, depending on what's in season. Aim for Door 4. 

How do I pay?
Quite a lot of the stallholders accept plastic, though it's polite to ask first, just in case.
Take cash anyway, because it's just much easier if you're buying different bunches from different stands. Whatever you buy, no matter how small, and however you pay, you will get a hand-written receipt, even if you're paying by credit card. VAT is added on to the price afterwards, so watch out for that.

Don't I have to buy in bulk?
Not flowers, usually, though they won't split a bunch. Watch out for things like bedding plants, such as geraniums. I wanted some lemon thyme last week, and had to buy a tray of eight. But they were lovely bushy plants so, since I wanted at least four, and the total cost was about £12, I got them anyway, and gave away the spares as Easter presents. I also bought two standard lavenders (oh, the self-indulgence!) for £10 each, which was half what they were in the garden centre.

So I can buy plants too?
Yes, though there isn't the same range available. There's usually a good selection of herbs, bedding plants (in season) and orchids, as well as houseplants. It's mainly the sort of stuff a big florist might stock, because it makes good presents. The orchids are particularly good - an amazing array of colours, and sizes, some beautifully planted up with moss in glass cubes.

What else is there for sale?
An astonishing array of vases; sundries such as ribbons, wedding favours and flower-wrapping paper in dozens of different colours and designs; wire and string; pots; baskets; wreaths; books on flower-arranging; bamboo poles - you name it.

Isn't it better to go nearer to closing time?
No, because all the best stuff will have gone, and although the market technically doesn't shut until 11am, it's pretty quiet by about 9.30am. It can be cold too, so hanging around when it's half-empty is a bit depressing. There are loos (lovely clean ones - look for the sign near Door 2), but not much else in the way of facilities. I advise packing a Thermos and a fleece in the back of the car.

Houseplants for sale at the flower market. They look good, don't they?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It's Easter (so that means it's raining)

It's a typical Easter weekend here in London. It's grey and miserable, though not cold (about 12-14C or 54-57F), so there are no frost worries. In fact, it's perfect planting weather - if one could muster the enthusiasm to get out in the garden.
It's not as if I haven't got anything to do out there, so I've been trying various "eject-myself- from-house" tactics. First I read Helen Yemm's column in the Saturday Telegraph, which usually has the effect of propelling me gardenwards in the same way that some people find a strong cup of coffee helps them on their way to work. Unfortunately I was busy yesterday doing other things, so the effect wore off before I had time to get outside.
Then I looked at the herbs (see above) that I bought at New Covent Garden Market the other morning. That didn't work - it was incredibly easy to persuade myself that they'll happily sit there for another few days.
So I went to the Rare Plant Fair at Syon Park in west London today, and bought some hardy geraniums (G macrorrhizum album and 'Blue Sunrise') and a couple of 'Charity' scented pelargoniums. By complete chance, I also met Julia of We're Going To Need A Bigger Pot. I'd never met her before, but she turned around to speak to someone and I recognised her from her Facebook picture. She lives near Syon too, so I was fairly confident I was accosting the right person.
It was great to chat to her and to see what she'd bought (euphorbia, ferns, wasabi), and to pick her brains about ferns, and ask her about her Spanish field trip. We decided we needed to have a London garden bloggers meeting and talked about where this might be and who might come.
Our encounter failed to get me out in the garden, however, because as soon as I got home I jumped on the computer instead.
Anyway, now it's time for Gardeners' Question Time, so I'm going to listen  to that and hope it will inspire me. Pause here for a short intermission.
Well, I've listened to GQT and it did inspire me to go outside, specifically to move the trampoline so I can replant that area. I enlisted the help of my 6ft son, and between the two of us, we managed to get it upright. The trampoline is 10ft in diameter and the plan was to roll it under the cherry tree at the end of the garden and lean it against the back fence, out of the way. Well, of course, it wouldn't go under the cherry tree. All it seemed to want to do was to fall over on top of my son and myself, so, cursing, we put it back where it was.
I'm now on the computer again, instead of getting on with the chores. Will someone please give me a good kick up the backside?

The recalcitrant trampoline, now back where it started. I swear it's laughing at me.

Oops, I could do with loading up the washing machine as well...

But on the plus side, there are things happening in the garden that require absolutely no intervention from me whatsoever. Just as well...

The bananas are burgeoning! They may look a little battered and bruised, but it looks like they're going to come good, despite the coldest, snowiest winter for 20 years, and despite me not wrapping them up for the first time ever. Welcome back, guys! The climber behind is Holboellia latifolia, which at this time of the year has tiny greeny-white flowers. You can just see them framed between the new banana leaf and the right-hand stalk. The flowers smell like those hot towels they give you at the end of the meal in Chinese restaurants. Holboellia (formerly Stauntonia) may sound exotic - it comes from the Himalayas - but it is a thug. Mine has covered the back fence and is constantly stretching out murderous tendrils in a bid to strangle the bananas.

The tree fern is starting to unfold its new fronds. I love this bit. Before they start to show, you can feel them nestled inside the trunk, like little babies' heads. Then as they start to unfurl, they look like a bishop's crozier. Fabulous plants, at every stage.

The Japanese maples are coming into leaf. This is Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'

These white tulips have reappeared. How did that happen? I thought they'd disappeared for good last year. (What do you mean, lift tulips? Life is way too short.)

And there are some sweet little white chionodoxa next to this Heuchera Key Lime Pie. How did they get there? I don't remember planting them, but I suppose I must have done. How do you remember the difference between chionodoxa and scillas? Well, CHionodoxa are CHeeky and look up, whereas Scillas are Shy and look down. Emmat says that 'Key Lime Pie' looks like lettuce. But I love it, so there.

And here are some dear little polyanthus that I planted the first year we moved to this house, in 2003. They are nothing special, just bog-standard F1 types but they flower reliably every year. That's the sort of plant I like. Happy Easter, everyone.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gardeners' World and the big 1-0-0

Well, I was going to write about the new Gardeners' World garden, and then I noticed this was my 100th post. So I thought it was only fair to mark the occasion by expressing my gratitude to all those of you who have read my blog, laughed at my jokes, and generally supported me through good times and some very sad times. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Anyway, back to GW. You can read my condensed comments at the Guardian's gardening blog where a few of us were invited to give our views, in the style of the Strictly Come Dancing judges (Garden Monkey was Len Goodman, I was Craig Revel Horwood. And revel is the word...). However, I thought I'd like to say a bit more. (VP, one of my fellow judges, has done the same.)
I wasn't a Monty Don addict, or a huge admirer of Berryfields, so I was fairly open-minded about the new garden. However, I must say, I felt a bit cheated. When I first saw Greenacre I wasn't inspired - and I'm sure a lot of would-be gardeners feel just like that if they've moved into a new-build property with only a bare fence and a patch of lawn. In the words of Noel Coward, it looked Very Flat.
So, did we get some advice on how you go about breaking up a rather dauntingly featureless expanse? Nope. We got Toby Buckland waving a piece of paper around, some mechanical diggers, and then hey presto, a very long wall and a very big greenhouse materialised as if by magic, complete with hard landscaping.
Now, I think most of us are capable of going down to the garden centre and buying a few pots of daffodils or tulips to brighten up the garden at this time of year. What most of us find really difficult are the expensive, irreversible decisions of gardening - the bit where you have to make crucial choices about paving, and structure, and trees, and siting of ponds and so on. It would have been great to have had a much more detailed analysis of that process.
I'm still not convinced, however, that the very premise of a BBC garden is a good one. Like anything designed by committe, it's never going to have the soul and sense of place that you find in a garden that is the vision of an individual. To me, even the Royal Horticultural Society gardens have a slightly municipal feel about them compared to, say, Great Dixter or Hidcote.
I think I'd rather see real gardens, and real problems: the series of makeovers that Joe Swift has been doing in Gardeners' World magazine has been fascinating. So I hope there will be lots more Me and My Garden slots, especially if the owners are as beguiling as last week's.