Sunday, May 22, 2011

First impressions of Chelsea

To the Chelsea Flower Show today for a sneak preview. The show doesn't open until Tuesday, and official press day and judging is tomorrow, so you'll have to forgive the odd untidy edge, or gardener person, or television camera skulking in the background.
I often spend so much time gossiping on press day that it's quite useful to go to the show on Sunday. That way, when people ask you what you think of a particular garden, you have actually seen it. These days, however, you bump into lots of people on the Sunday as well, so I've already done more than my fair share of Chelsea chat.
I thought on balance the general standard of the show gardens was good. The photographer Derek St Romaine said he thought it wasn't a vintage year, but it's not a bad year either. Some of the gardens I thought I'd hate, but I found I rather liked them. And despite all the doom-mongering about the bad winter, the dry spring, the heat and - today - the wind, the plants were in the main very good quality.
Here are some first impressions of the show gardens.

The M&G garden by Bunny Guinness. She describes it as a modern kitchen garden, but to me it seemed more of a romantic take on a potager. Vegetables planted in raised beds, with a colour scheme of purple and crimson.

I think this garden will be popular with the public, because at first glance it looks very pretty, but I found it too cluttered. There were so many elements - raised beds, ornate cloches, trellis obelisks - it was difficult to see what was going on.

Nigel Dunnett's design for the Royal Bank of Canada's New Wild Garden. The wonderful oak and stone benches are by Henry Brudenell-Bruce and his Dartmoor Bench Company.

Professor Dunnett is Britain's green-roof pioneer, so as you'd expect, this garden ticks all the environmental boxes. According to Mark Gregory, whose Landform Consultants were the contractors on this garden, the habitat walls were a labour of love, involving hours and hours of meticulous work. I loved the colour scheme - the orange of the geums and the blue of the container shed - and the sempervivums planted in the tops of the walls.

Diarmuid Gavin's Irish Sky Garden was one I had mentally filed under B for Bonkers, but I found myself first intrigued by it and then rather liking it. Diarmuid was kind enough to let us on to the garden, and into the flying pod, although we were unable to get airborne because of the high winds. The pod is suspended from a huge crane, which winches it in to the air. Because of the crane, the garden is big and has a great sense of spaciousness.

The pink pod - Wonka pink, as Diarmuid described it - contains two Lutyens benches fitted with seatbelts and carved with the names of his father and mother-in-law, who have both passed away. The pod is the most flowery bit of planting, with pale pink peonies picking up the "Wonka pink". Diarmuid said the idea was to try to make people feel relaxed and comfortable in case they were nervous when it came to lift-off.

The rest of the garden is almost entirely green, apart from this Zantedeschia aethiopica. It's a very cushiony garden, composed of topiarised yew and box, and hummocks of grasses. I loved it, especially the way the path threaded you through the planting and up to the pod.

There are a series of pools in the garden, some of which are inky black, like the pools you see in bogs, while others have pebbles in them. Diarmuid says that by tomorrow, there will be fountains playing from pool to pool.
I'm wondering whether being a city dweller influenced my view of the Irish Sky Garden. In London, you tend to be grateful for any cool, green colour that comes your way. My colleague Anna Pavord said she thought it looked like a topiary catalogue. Anna lives in the middle of the Dorset countryside, so the idea of being surrounded by green is probably less of a novelty. And I rather like topiary, although I know a lot of people don't.

Perhaps it's just that I have a bit of a weakness for foliage, because I also liked Ann-Marie Powell's garden for the British Heart Foundation. The design is supposed to represent heart strings and corpuscles, and the only two dominant colours in the garden are the green of the leaves and the red of the arbour and stepping stones.

I like things in the garden to be useful as well as decorative, so I'm a bit allergic to structures for the sake of it. But the "heart strings" act as a pergola, or corridor, around the garden before arching up into an arbour that shelters a seating area. It felt like a lot of thought had gone into the concept.

I knew I'd like this garden. Here's a master at work - Cleve West, for the Daily Telegraph. Gorgeous planting in quite a subdued palette, lifted by the silver centaurea and pale yellow achillea at one end of the scale, and the vibrant red of Dianthus cruentus and valerian (Centranthus ruber) at the other.

The columns, inspired by the Roman ruins at Ptolemais, in Libya, have a wonderful texture, while along the creamy yellow wall, a series of plain, chunky spouts pour water into a rill.

Just gorgeous. Pass the gold medal, please.

Here's another garden I didn't expect to like. It's the Monaco garden, designed by Sarah Eberle. I really admire her work, so was determined to keep an open mind, despite the fact that I found the sketch of her design a bit "meh", as my kids would say.
I was glad I did, because the more I looked at this garden, the more I liked it. I loved the colours - the exuberant orange geums and purple salvias, with the spikes of yuccas breaking up the straight lines of the hard landscaping.

You must walk down the side of this garden, because otherwise you'll miss this "wow factor" interior, which gives on to the stair to the roof terrace.

This is a very confident, hedonistic garden, and I could imagine sitting in it and feeling rather pleased with life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mirabel, a memoir and a wonderful surprise

I got home from work this evening to the usual paraphernalia of home life - pile of mail (hmm), delivery of plants (oooh!), various school communications which demanded my immediate attention (aargh). I'm sure you know the sort of thing.
I admired my plants (Euphorbia characias 'Portuguese Velvet', since you ask) and turned to the mail. In the pile was a package which looked as if it contained books. Goodness, plants and books. How lovely! Could life get any better? Yes, it could.
In the package was a copy of The Rain Tree, the memoir by Mirabel Osler which has just been published by Bloomsbury. With it was a paperback edition of A Gentle Plea for Chaos, which Bloomsbury have simultaneously republished (it's been out of print for years).
Many of you will know the work of Mirabel Osler, a writer who could make a shopping list seem lyrical. If you don't know it, here's your chance to be totally beguiled by someone who speaks to - and for - the silent poet that lurks in every gardening soul.
In the way of a taster, I offer you this extract from A Gentle Plea for Chaos:
"There are many ways of starting a garden. Abstract ideas may originate in the mind, and are then meticulously transferred to paper, when every bed is plotted for colour, shape and size before the first plant goes in. Another impetus may come from a cherished longing to have one area of your own, where no one can constrain you and where no conformity compromises your imagination.
"Or, after the culmination of years spent hoarding articles and seed catalogues, the gardener knows already what needs to be done. Yet others may be haunted by childhood memories of magic places of make-believe, of games, scents and secrets. Gardens may start from a bare piece of earth surrounding a newly built house, or from the sheer necessity of hiding some hideous building, or maybe from a desire for self-protection from sea and tempests. Others need a little space for sitting in the sun, for hanging out the washing, where children can play or just where the cat naps.
"Whatever it is, once started a garden holds you in its thrall. However irksome it becomes at times, who can go outside and kick a lily?"
Hope you enjoyed it. I'm off to read my book.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Meet at Malvern Reunited (well, some of us, anyway)

I set off for the Malvern Spring Gardening Show on a bright spring day, threading my way through the London traffic en route for the busy M40. Once you turn off at Oxford for the A44, the traffic evaporates and you can make steady progress through the Cotswold countryside.
It's a long journey, though - four hours, including a stop for lunch and supplies - and it was a relief to pitch up at our cottage in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside and find VP putting the kettle on.
I admired the view from my window (above), gulped down the tea, drew in a few deep breaths of fresh country air, and set off for Patient Gardener's house, where we were meeting our fellow bloggers: Artist's Garden, Elizabethm, Zoë, and Dobby, who is an honorary blogger.
PG had cooked us supper (salmon, new potatoes and salad, with various puddings), which was delicious, and although we missed the Malvern Class of 2010, it was nice to be able to hold a general conversation.

Showtime! Press day at Malvern is also open to RHS and Three Counties members, so although it's not packed with people, there's a cheerful bustle. It's best to try to hit the Floral Marquee as early as you can as it fills up fast. I'd previewed Malvern, so I was able to go shopping or wander around in a dream with a clear conscience. I'd only got five paces into the marquee before I'd spent £20 and bought seven plants.
You can't buy at Chelsea (though you can place orders), and although the Hampton Court show is a good place to buy plants, it always seems a bit frantic. At Malvern, the growers seem much more relaxed; indeed, everyone seems much more relaxed. VP and I had lunch in the press tent (after a couple of glasses of Pimms, we were extremely relaxed), then set off to view the show gardens.

Two of these were outstanding, winning well-deserved gold medals. Above is the Graduate Gardeners' Garden For Life, which also won Best in Show. The A-frame building has solar panels and is designed to maximise the harvesting of rainwater. A greenhouse and bin store are built into the eaves, and the deck is made of eucalyptus, which is a sustainable hardwood.
Below is Hannah Genders' Bicycle Garden, in which everything was sourced from within cycling distance of the designer's home. What impressed me most about this garden was the fact that although most of the materials were recycled, the end result is very smart rather than fraying round the edges. It was a good, straightforward concept that really grabbed the public imagination, and it was brilliantly executed.

Here's Patient Gardener in the lecture theatre (below), trying to pretend she hasn't bought any plants. ("What, these old things? I've had them for ages.") Some more bloggers arrived to say hello - Trillium and Arabella Sock - much to the amazement of Becky Rochester from Timber Press. She was there looking after a couple of her writers, Neil Lucas and Noel Kingsbury, who were talking to James Alexander-Sinclair about their books.

Yet more plant buying, followed by quite a lot of plant-purchase-picking-up. Finally left the show at 5.45pm, with only just enough time to scamper home and change for dinner. We met up with the others at the Malvern Hills Hotel and had a great evening followed by the usual furtive-looking car park rendezvous where various plant swaps were made.

Back to the show, so VP could file her Guardian blog post from the press tent, then it was off to meet PG who had very kindly agreed to drive us to Bryan's Ground (see earlier post). We were all shattered when we got back, so PG decided to have an early night, while VP and I went off to join the Socks and Lazy Trollop and her husband for a drink.

VP and I went to hand the keys back to Ella at the Old Country House B&B and have a wander round the garden. It really is the most idyllic spot: the call of a cuckoo had woken us each morning.

I'd had a look at a couple of hotels further into Malvern, thinking it might be more practical to be closer to the show (and everyone else). However, when you're in the middle of the gorgeous Herefordshire countryside, it's very difficult to imagine staying anywhere else.
Ella showed us a couple of the B&B rooms, one of which had a dear little bat asleep on an armchair. That clinched it. I am booking the Bat Room for next year.

It's very difficult to tear yourself away from Malvern. I made one final visit to the show, and bought two huge Moroccan lanterns for the garden, plus a couple of dishes. Luckily, by this time, the boot of my car was full, so I had no choice but to go home.
It was lovely to get back and see the kids, but I'm already looking forward to Malvern 2012.

Bryan's Ground: a triumph of art and craft

I've spent the last few days at the Malvern Spring Gardening Show, and I'll post about that very soon. First, however, I want to talk about Bryan's Ground. It's a garden that I've wanted to visit for a long time; a garden with which you too may be familiar, if you have ever read the gardening magazine Hortus.
Like Hortus, Bryan's Ground is the creation of David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell, who moved here in 1993. The house itself was built in 1912, and is typical of the Arts and Crafts period. But it is Wheeler and Dorrell's art and craft that has transformed this building from what could have been just another large, almost suburban mock-Tudor home, and given it a new life at the heart of this extraordinary garden. Originally cream, with black beams, it is now a soft ochre, which seems both to have aged it by a couple of centuries and rooted it in the landscape.

So why did I like Bryan's Ground? Well, it has that sense of stillness that all great gardens have. It's difficult to describe, but it's like the garden equivalent of self-confidence and poise. It reminds me a bit of Great Dixter - with the same delightful shagginess around the edges - but this garden is much more art-directed than Dixter.
Christopher Lloyd made some dramatic changes at Great Dixter, but in the main he adhered to the original layout of the garden which of necessity also resulted in compromises (roses in the Exotic Garden, for example). If there are compromises at Bryan's Ground, I didn't spot them.
Wherever you look at Bryan's Ground, from every angle, there is a focal point, or a view across an interesting piece of planting or topiary. Vistas and verticals - for me, that's what Bryan's Ground is about.
Have you ever noticed that, when people describe gardens, they describe them in horizontal, or two-dimensional terms? Borders, lawns, paths, walls, trellises - we think of them all as linear features. Yet when we draw, we tend to start with the vertical lines - the walls of a house, the outline of a human figure, the trunk of a tree, the stem of a flower.
Maybe that's why we feel instinctively comfortable with yew pillars and hedges and topiary. They fill the field of vision in a very satisfyingly solid way.

There's also a very whimsical side to Bryan's Ground, however. All sorts of "found" objects have been pressed into service as architectural or decorative details, such as the pediment below, which is made from bits of scrap metal and wood. There's no attempt to paint them or pretend they are anything other than what they are, which stops them falling into the category of knick-knackery.

I loved the bondage lady, below, and the way the gargoyle seems to be gazing at her as if he's trying to summon up the courage to ask her out.

A "sculpture" made from an old hot water tank and a lawn rake

You pass this dresser on the way into the garden. It's full of pots and funny little objects and mini bonsai. It's the equivalent of the place in your house where you dump your keys, and the mail, and any odd bits and pieces for which you can't instantly find a home.

I wanted one of these semi-circular watering cans, which are perfect for hanging on the wall. Simon Dorrell thinks the Roman numerals might once have been part of a floral clock - they originally had little spikes with which to hold them in the ground.

Inside the greenhouse, where succulents and geraniums bask around a Moorish fountain.

I can feel the plantaholics among you becoming slightly restless, fidgeting in your seats and muttering: "Yes, Victoria, but what about the plants?" Well, like most good gardens, Bryan's Ground has its signature plants. There is Eleagnus pungens 'Quicksilver', which you can see erupting like a silver fountain in the picture below. This is a deciduous large shrub or small tree, which in May and June produces small creamy flowers which from a distance look a bit like the flowers of Christmas box and are also scented. There are several of these at Bryan's Ground and on the day I visited, they filled the garden with a subtle, spicy perfume.

Another signature plant is the Iris sibirica (I'm guessing 'Papillon') which fill the beds either side of the serpentine canal in front of the house.

If you look through the grid of iris beds, the canal appears to be a series of circular pools, half hidden by the flowers.

Seen from the front, the curving edge is very dramatic.

Other favourite plants appear to be Centaurea montana, or perennial cornflower, and spring flowering perennials such as thalictrum (below) and aquilegias.

In such a theatrical garden, it is only right that there is an actual theatre. I could just imagine a string quartet playing here, or perhaps a recital of baroque arias. Messrs Wheeler and Dorrell, I applaud you.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Goodbye to Pushkin, the nicest cat in the whole world

It's with great sadness that I have to tell you we said goodbye to Pushkin at the weekend.
Lots of you have been asking after him, which is really sweet, but I couldn't face writing about him until now.
As you know, he had a problem with his back, which turned out to be a form of arthritis. We took him to an orthopaedic vet, but he started to improve, so we decided to wait and see if this continued.
A couple of weeks later, without any warning, he lost the use of his back legs. He was able to heave himself about using his front paws, but it was awful to watch him trying to scramble up onto the sofa or try to get into a comfortable position to eat.
Although he liked the idea of eating, he started to eat less and less. We would hold the bowl at a comfortable height for him so he didn't have to strain, but he would still turn his head away after a couple of mouthfuls. He very quickly lost more and more weight.
At first, he still managed to struggle to his litter tray, but then the effort became too much and he started to soil himself. This in turn made him distressed, as he couldn't clean himself properly, so eventually we took the very difficult decision to have him put down.
The vet was in complete agreement with this, and on Saturday we took him in to say goodbye. My daughter and I were in floods of tears and although my son was doing his "man of the family" thing at the vet's, bless him, once we got home he disappeared up to his room. He came down a couple of hours later with his eyes all red from crying. I don't blame him - I can feel tears pricking my eyes as I write about this even now.
As soon as the vet gave him the injection, Pushkin laid his head down as if he was exhausted. He probably was, poor baby. The vet said you could see what a release it was, and I think that's true.
But he has left a huge hole in our lives. He was a loyal and beautiful companion for 11 years, and he will always have a very special place in our hearts.