Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Welcome to my garden, August 2010

To be honest, I found opening the garden for the National Gardens Scheme really tiring this year. I didn't sleep very well the night before and got up around 6.30am to make a cup of tea and feed the cat. Then my daughter drifted downstairs to say she had an ear infection and had been in pain all night. I drove her to the walk-in clinic at the nearby hospital, which luckily opens at 7am, even on Sundays. We got home, I settled her down with some antibiotic drops in her ear and went to "sit down for five minutes". Two hours later, I woke up in a major panic. It was 10am and I had four hours in which to ice 14 cakes, make two Victoria sponges, get out tables, chairs, cups, plates, notices, tickets, cash float, etc etc etc.
We managed to get ready in the nick of time, which was just as well, as when I went to open the gate, we had a queue of people waiting. Everyone said lovely things about the garden, but the weather decided to be rather spiteful and at about 3.30pm, we were treated to lashing rain and a howling gale.
We managed to get everyone inside, and after about half an hour, just as I was thinking we would have to have a sing-song or something to entertain everyone, the weather cleared. The day ended with a clear blue sky and bright sunshine, but the damage had been done and I think a lot of people had been put off.
The bloggers made a good show, though. I'd like to say a huge thank you to Emily and Ms B, and Rob and The Fat Gardener. I was so touched that you all came - it made my day.
In all, we had 92 visitors. At the time I was a bit disappointed - we had 166 last year - and I started to wonder whether all the hard work was worth it.
I think it was exhaustion that made me feel so negative, because after a day's rest I'm beginning to think we did pretty well, considering.
This morning, some workmen turned up to re-sand my living room floor, and they were so complimentary about the garden, that cheered me up too.
So I'll stop whingeing and let the garden speak for itself instead.

This is one of my favourite views. It's not a particularly attractive shot of the garden, but this is how it looked the morning after. It's the one day of the year when I can walk out into the garden and really revel in the knowledge that I don't have to do anything.

This is the front garden, looking strangely respectable. I decided I needed to tart it up a bit, since this is the first thing visitors see, so I've started using large cobbles to break up the expanse of gravel and I think it's working well. I'll do a separate post on it at a later date.

This is the first view visitors have of the back garden as they come down the side passage and turn the corner.

Opposite are the steamer chairs, inviting people to sit down and relax

This is a better overall view of the garden, taken in the afternoon, when the light is better.

Here's a closer view of the "hot border", with, from left, Ensete ventricosum 'Maurellii', (red banana), Fuchsia 'Thalia' (rescued by my neighbour from the dump), Cordyline 'Torbay Dazzler' and Canna 'Durban'. There are some people who will hate this combination and think it vulgar...

... but how could this not make your heart sing?

Here's another variegated canna, 'Pretoria', with more red bananas.

It's not all variegated foliage, though (as I'm sure James Alexander-Sinclair will be relieved to hear). Here's the Montezuma pine, whose extraordinary needles look at their best this time of year. They shimmer in the sun and in the rain, they look as if they are bedecked with thousands of tiny crystals.

The huge leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifera make a great foil for the extravagant fronds of the tree fern, Dicksonia antarctica

Oops, some more variegated leaves in the pond. This is Acorus gramineus 'Ogon', which is possibly the lowest-maintenance pond plant I have come across. In the centre is a white waterlily, 'Highlight', and the spiky things that look like submerged cordylines are water soldiers, Stratiotes aloides. Despite their exotic appearance, they are native to Britain and Europe.

Here's a view I don't often show you. This is the snow gum, Eucalyptus debeuzevillei, which comes from New South Wales. It's a great little tree - so much more delicate and user-friendly than the giant E. gunnii which seem to grow like weeds in London. This one has been stooled - ie cut right back when young - so it is multi-stemmed. I always think eucalyptus can look a bit drab, but this one looks wonderful with the sun on its pale bark.

Here's the pond known as the frog pond beneath the eucalyptus. The geranium is 'Rozanne', one of the most reliable hardy geraniums when it comes to summer-long flowering. It just goes on and on. The miniature bamboo is Pleioblastus auricomus and the heuchera on the left is 'Sweet Tea'.

This is the view from the bench you can see in the picture of the eucalyptus. I've tried to plan the garden so that wherever you sit down, there is something interesting to look at.
I hope you've enjoyed this mini-tour. If you want to read more about the National Gardens Scheme, Karen has a post about it here.

Blogging for Benjamin

One of the blogs I've followed almost from the moment I started my own is The Deep Middle, by Benjamin Vogt. Of those of us who contribute to the clamorous world of cybercommunication, he is more entitled than many to call himself a writer. He has a doctorate, he is a poet and author, and - of course - he is a gardener, architect of a gorgeous vision that his followers have seen develop from a bare backyard to a billowing mass of flowers that delights the soul and supports colonies of Monarch butterflies.
As you might expect from a poet, Benjamin feels passionately about things. I may not always agree with his views, but I never find his blog boring; it is always intriguing, challenging, enchanting. His comments on my blog are wry, funny and - in sad times - full of sympathy.
So I feel the least I can do is to join the chorus of publicity for his latest book, a poetry collection entitled Without Such Absence.
Indeed, mention of the book is long overdue on this blog, for the deadline to win a free copy is only two days away, on 3 September. You can also buy a copy, and pay only $1 shipping (I assume this is in mainland US only). My feeble excuse for this tardiness is my garden open day, which has taken up nearly all my spare time over the past few weeks.
So many apologies, Dr Vogt, and good luck.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Describe your garden in 50 words

It's raining here, so having racked my brains - not very hard, it must be said - for garden chores I can do in a steady downpour, I came inside for a cup of tea and a quick flick through The Garden, the monthly magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society, which arrived this morning.
One of the things I turn to first is Ursula Buchan's column, which this month mentions that it's time for all National Garden Scheme owners to fill in the application to open their gardens for next year.
"Much thought is given," says Ursula, "to the short description of the garden. How do you encapsulate so many years of planning triumphs, disasters, rethinks and incremental improvements in a few terse sentences?" Well, quite.
It's strange, but although I'm rarely at a loss for words when it comes to writing my blog, I find it very difficult to describe my garden. There are several problems.
First, I don't want to sound pompous, or pretentious, or boastful. Yet I do want to write something that will make people want to come and see it.
Second, one has to beware of mentioning features that may have disappeared - or reappeared - by next year. For example, I used to say I had three ponds, a big one and two little ones. (One visitor took issue with this, saying that two tubs of water hardly added up to one pond, let alone two.) However, this year, I have converted the less successful of the two small ponds into a kind of squelchy bog garden, with colocasias and a sarracenia. I only did it the other day, so although I'm very pleased with it, it's too early to say whether it is going to work in the long term. Next year, it may not be there.

The colocasias are 'Hawaiian Eye' (I think) and 'Blue Hawaii'. I can't tell you what the sarracenia is because the label is buried beside it and I didn't fancy dabbling around trying to retrieve it. Not with a camera in my hand, anyway.

At one point, my description used to mention a screen of Arundo donax, the tall Spanish reed, masking the trampoline from view. When I got rid of the trampoline, I forgot to edit this bit out, to the great disappointment of another visitor. (How can anyone look forward to seeing a trampoline?) I hope she doesn't come back this year, because I've ripped out most of the arundo as well...
Third - I can't think of a third. At the very thought of writing my garden description, my brain has begun to freeze over. How would you describe your garden? To make it even more challenging, we'll set a maximum length of 50 words.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

So what do I get out of it?

I'm in panic mode at the moment. I have a week to do all the gardening tasks that I've been promising myself I'll do for the past three months. (I can see at least two of them in the picture above: trim the box and deadhead the libertia.) And then there's the cakes. Oh, joy.
It's got to the point where people ask me if I'm opening my garden again. I hadn't really thought about this, beyond reflecting that it was sweet of them to take an interest, but I suppose it means that it is now established as an annual event, which is rather nice.
Lots of people also ask me what I get out of it, apart from raising money for charity, of course. There is a lot of work, about which I make a lot of fuss, and it would be silly to pretend that there weren't stressful or tiring moments. People say things like: "I suppose it must be nice when people come round and tell you your garden looks lovely."
Well, that's true, but what I most enjoy is seeing other people enjoy the garden. I was trying to explain this to a friend the other day and the best analogy I can come up with is this:
Imagine that you've gone out for the evening with friends, new or old, and at the end of the evening they say: "You look absolutely wonderful." That would be great, wouldn't it? But wouldn't you be even more pleased if they said: "We've had the most fantastic time, it was so lovely to see you again. We always enjoy going out with you so much."
I've never been sure whether I garden for an audience or not. I spend a lot of time alone in the garden, doing chores or just daydreaming, and I'm quite happy like that. The kids never notice anything new, particularly in the way of plants. It doesn't bother me: I don't drag them out to look at things.
My mother, on the other hand, says she finds gardening far more satisfying if someone comes round and admires the results.
I don't think I look for admiration, because if someone didn't like the garden, frankly, my dear, I wouldn't give a Darmera peltata. But I like it when the results give pleasure to someone else, which is slightly different, I think.
My husband used to enjoy the garden tremendously. He'd say nice things about what I'd done, sure, but what I liked most of all was the way he revelled in the discovery of the first ripe plum, or the appearance of the first flower or leaf on a treasured plant. I loved his enthusiasm.
I'd never thought about this before, but although I was quite keen on gardening before Craig and I got together, I didn't really have the courage of my horticultural convictions (such as they were) until we had our first garden as a couple.
In the same way that Craig gave me the confidence to be myself (he regarded my legendary bad temper as a vital tool for producing newspapers on time rather than as an acute personality defect), he gave me the confidence to garden for myself. If I'd said to him: "I think I might plant a huge cactus in the middle of the lawn," he wouldn't have looked disapproving and asked me if I really thought that was a good idea. He'd have just said: "How big a hole do you want me to dig?"
I miss him. Perhaps that enjoyment and enthusiasm is what I'm trying to recreate by opening the garden.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Open day: the information

A huge welcome to any Independent readers who have been directed here via my column today.
Here are the details of my open day for the National Gardens Scheme. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Woodpecker! A false alarm

I was idly looking out at the garden today when I saw a flash of red. Intrigued, I crept closer and saw a black and white bird with a red head sidle up the trunk of the Montezuma pine before launching itself at the fat ball feeder. A woodpecker!
But which woodpecker? I ran to the computer and called up the RSPB site. There are three woodpeckers found in the UK, the great spotted, the green and the lesser spotted. The great and lesser are quite similar except that the lesser spotted is smaller and has a distinctive red head.
Not only that, but while the great spotted is reasonably common, the lesser spotted is on the red list, ie globally threatened. OMG! Was this a lesser spotted?
I rang up the RSPB London branch (well, I had to tell someone) and agreed that I'd try to get a picture. I didn't hold out much hope, but the woodpecker seemed to have made a beeline - or perhaps that should be a woodpeckerline? - for the fat ball feeder, so it had obviously dined there before.
Sure enough, about a couple of hours later, there it was again on the trunk of the pine. This time I got a picture - and this time I could clearly see that it was a great spotted, with the distinctive white bar, like an upraised finger, on its side. Apparently, the juveniles have quite red heads and this is what had misled me.
Never mind. It's nice to see a woodpecker of whatever variety in the garden.

Sorry about the quality of the pictures - I had to take them through the glass as I didn't dare open the doors for fearing of scaring the bird away. Here's the red head that first attracted my attention.

The woodpecker seemed quite interested in the tree itself. The Montezuma has really thick, rugged bark and while I was trying to take these pictures, the bird kept disappearing for ages around the other side of the trunk.

Here's the bird side-on, and you can now clearly see the distinctive white shoulder patch.

It seems to be having a look at the seed feeder, but it didn't actually feed there. The fat ball feed is on the righthand side of the tree, out of shot.

The typical woodpecker pose. I've written before on this blog about feeding the birds all year round and as you can see, it certainly pays off.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The work-life balance in Victoria's Backyard

There are times when work almost seems to get in the way of life. As my garden open day draws nearer, I start to resent every moment that can't be spent outside, titivating. Then I rather guiltily remember that if I didn't work, and didn't get paid, I wouldn't have much of a life. Or much of a garden, come to that.
Today, I've got a piece in The Independent about my garden opening. Sometimes work comes in very handy...