Saturday, September 24, 2011

The one-minute review solution

I'm in the process of packing up my study. (Oh dear, just typing those very words makes me want to go and lie down.) I'm having the room redecorated because it has got to the point where the wallpaper is beginning to come away from the ceiling. Wallpaper? Ceiling? Shows how long it is since it has been decorated properly.
The kids and I use the study as a second living room, and we spend quite a lot of time in there, so it seems silly not to have it looking nice. I also want to de-office it, so all the metal bins and desk accessories and so on are going out and instead I'm going to have rattan baskets and warm textures and colours.
It's the only room in the house that's never been professionally decorated, mainly because it is full of books and my computer. The thought of being without those (oh, dear, I think I want to go and lie down again) has always put me off clearing it out. But the moment has now come. Or rather, the decorators will come, on Monday morning.
I feel a bit guilty about this, because no sooner did I start packing the books up than I realised there were several that I had been meaning to write about. So if you'll forgive me, I'm going to do a very quick, one-minute review of each.

I don't know any gardener who hasn't got a bit of dry shade somewhere in their plot. It's one of the most common, and one of the trickiest, problems to solve. As Graham says in the piece that he wrote for The Independent Magazine, "it's the patch of dark and dusty soil that reminds you perhaps you're not quite as good a gardener as you'd like to be."
Graham is editor-in-chief of the Royal Horticultural Society's Encyclopedia of Perennials, and an RHS judge, so he knows his stuff. But the book is written in a very easy and relaxed style - much like Graham himself, in fact!
The result is a how-to manual, that fills you with have-a-go inspiration. Graham offers various solutions for dealing with drought and lack of light and of course offers planting suggestions. too. This isn't just a list - there is a page for each plant, each lavishly illustrated with photographs by Graham and his wife, Judy White.

Like the next book, this one has, in my opinion, a slightly misleading title. It's a beautiful book, with gorgeous colour photographs, by one of Britain's leading experts on grasses. However, the emphasis is very much on the grasses themselves, and not so much on designing.
Neil Lucas, for whom I have huge admiration, might find that a rather nit-picking criticism, because there are lots of planting suggestions. There's a section on grasses for shade, for example, and one on year-round interest.
It would have been nice, however, to have a couple of sample border plans or container recipes that people could try out in their own gardens, especially if they were new to growing grasses.
Having said all that, this is a must for anyone who wants to plant any grasses anywhere. Published in January, it is already well on the way to becoming one of those classics that you find on every serious gardener's bookshelf - and deservedly so.

3. Designing with Conifers by Richard L Bitner
This book is by an American author and is really aimed at an American audience, but conifers are so unfashionable here in the UK, it is difficult to find a book that takes them seriously. I love them, for their variety, their year-round interest and their texture, so I was anxious to get my hands on this volume, which - like the previous two books - is published by Timber Press.
The author studied horticulture at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, which I visited some years ago. But while there are photographs of very grand conifers in very grand gardens, like Longwood, there are also examples of suburban gardens and even containers.
There are no planting plans, as such, but there is a case study garden -Cassandra and Bryan Barrett's amazing conifer garden in Eugene, Oregon - showing how the various layers of planting work with each other in terms of height and shape. One of my favourite chapters was on Railway Gardens, showing how dwarf conifers in particular can be used to great effect in creating miniature landscapes for model railways. I suspect Mr Bitner has a bit of a weakness for such things!

4. Armitage's Garden Perennials by Allan M Armitage
Another North American book, also by Timber Press. When it arrived in the post, I stuck it on a shelf, thinking: "Guide to perennials, yeah, yeah" and left it there for a few days.
I eventually opened it to look up the section on sedums, and was completely charmed by this opening sentence. "I love the sedums for their amazing diversity of foliage, flower and plant habit, but there are so darn many of them, it is impossible to grow or know them all."
This is a guide to perennials with attitude. Here in the UK, we tend to take our gardening books rather seriously - a colleague was genuinely shocked when Graham Rice, writing for The Independent, described himself has having "grown a huge number of plants while searching for those to include in his book (see above) and killed many of them in the process". So it's very refreshing to hear Allan Armitage say, on the subject of achillea: "Yarrow is used for making beer ... Having tasted some of the concoctions of my beer-making friends, no ingredient in homebrew surprises me!" Or, recommending Rudbeckia 'Henry Eilers': "Find it, buy it. Full sun."

I should declare an interest here. I know Cleve, and I'm a great fan - not only of his garden designs, but also of his writing. In 2002, when I was editor of The Independent Magazine, I hired him to write our Urban Gardener column, which ran for five years. He often wrote about his allotment during that time, but even so, I was intrigued by the idea of a book. Would it be a "year in the life of my allotment" tome, or a "how to grow your own" manual? In fact, it is as close as you can get to wandering around the allotment with Cleve himself, one minute talking about wildlife, the next talking about his fellow allotmenteers, interspersed with lots of sensible observations. "If you are new to gardening," he warns the novice veg grower, "the best way to injure yourself and dampen your enthusiasm is to go at it hammer and tongs from day one ... Little and often is best." It's a fascinating glimpse of allotment life - but it's also a fascinating insight into Cleve himself. Perhaps the final word should go to my mum, who to my knowledge has never ever read a gardening book. She picked up my copy of Our Plot, flicked through it and said: "This looks really interesting."

Gotta go pack up those books now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The garden bird rant

A great tit on the feeder outside my study window

The concept of a garden as an "outdoor living space" has a lot to answer for. At the weekend, I was talking to someone who complained that all the birds seemed to have abandoned their garden.
The garden used to be full of birds, they said, but now - despite putting out bird feeders and suet balls and so on - there was not so much as a chirp. Did I think this was the result of global warming, or some sort of bird epidemic?
Further enquiry elicited the information that they had lived in their garden flat for about 18 months. The first year had been spent doing up the flat and it was only this summer that they got around to tidying up the garden.
Yup, you've guessed it. They have ripped out all the "messy" ivy and removed all the overgrown shrubs. Their garden is now an "outdoor living space", complete with painted fence, paving, and a few plants in containers.
Colleagues or friends of friends tell me stories like this quite often. One couple I know cut down the conifers in front of their house because they thought it would give them more light. (The conifers weren't Leylandii, and they weren't that close to the house.) Then they wondered why the "cute little birds" (a colony of goldcrests) had disappeared.
Because you've cut down the trees, I said. But we've put out a bird feeder, they said, and we've got an apple tree in a pot...
The stories are always the same, and the question is always the same. "Is the disappearance of the birds due to climate change?"
I always want to answer (but of course am far too polite to do so): "No, it's the result of Stupid Human Syndrome!"
The irony is that the same people will probably get quite exercised about the disappearance of the rainforests or the pollution engendered by the attempts of countries like China and India to make a decent living for themselves. They just can't make the connection between habitat loss and their own backyards.
This is depressing, because it seems as if I have read thousands of articles about how our gardens provide a vital refuge for songbirds. The RHS and the RSPB do a fantastic job in trying to educate the public about gardening for wildlife.
The trouble is, most of the time they are preaching to the converted. What we need is a really hard-hitting campaign that has a far greater popular impact. If only Pixar would make a film about a group of garden birds coping with a shrinking habitat (Bird Story) or Disney would come up with a plot involving birds in an alien environment (BIRD-E).
In the meantime, I shall go on patiently telling people that birds like cover, and that it doesn't matter how attractive your garden furniture is, or how much your paving cost, they won't come down to a feeder if there is not a single shrub or tree in the vicinity.

Friday, September 16, 2011

GBBD: September 2011

Phew, only a day late! I don't know where the time goes. I thought September was going to be a relaxing month, but for some weird reason it isn't - and I can't work out why. Or at least, I haven't had time to sit down and work out why!
Anyway, here's the garden. Cannas are in full swing, nasturtiums are still going strong and there are a few other bits and pieces too.

Canna 'Striata' (or 'Pretoria'). These are from Crocus and they are magnificent specimens.

I think this variety of nasturtium is 'Tip Top Apricot'. It's fractionally too peachy for here (I carefully haven't photographed it with the dahlias it clashes with), so I'm making a mental note to grow something more vibrant next year, such as 'Ladybird'.

The campsis, which is still going. Not sure of the cultivar - I think it's grandiflora.

This dear little clematis was a present from my colleague Charlotte, to whom I donated an Ikea sofa that was surplus to requirements. Her mother, who came round to help shift the sofa (who needs men, anyway?) is a keen gardener, which is lucky for me, because she went to Wisley and picked out this Raymond Evison variety, which is called 'Peppermint'. It looks fantastic with this carex, so I think that's where it might have a permanent home.

This is Crocosmia 'Columbus' which has been going for weeks now. The sedum is only just starting to flower, but this is a relatively shady spot.
The next few weeks are going to be hectic, as I have the decorators coming in to do my study, so I may not have much of a chance to sit at my computer. I'm hoping they'll be finished by October GBBD!
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted by the utterly delightful Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Why not go over there and see what everyone is up to?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Major (tree) surgery

The tree surgeons came today to prune my eucalyptus. I don't have the usual E. gunnii, which you see looming over many London gardens, but Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp debeuzevillei, or snow gum.
This is a very pretty eucalyptus and much more suitable for an urban garden as it doesn't grow quite as big (40ft as opposed to 80ft). The bark starts to peel around this time of year (August-September) revealing beautiful cream branches.
As its common name implies, it is one of the hardiest eucalypts, but its Latin name is completely misleading. Pauciflora means, literally, poor-flowering, but in reality, the tree is covered in white fluffy flowers in late spring.
Mine has been stooled (ie coppiced when young), so it is multi-stemmed. This has two benefits - it grows more slowly and it produces an attractive framework. So, if it's so wonderful, why am I having it pruned?
Well, the garden that backs on to my fence behind the eucalyptus used to have a lot of trees along the boundary, which meant that my eucalyptus started to grow forward, across my garden, in order to get its share of light.

A year or so ago, the next-door neighbours cut down all their trees in order to build a huge shed across the bottom of their garden, which meant that my eucalyptus now has permanent access to light from the south. My tree surgeon, Edward Payne, suggested pollarding, or cutting it right back, so that the new growth would go up rather than across.
I trust Ed, but even so, I was a bit nervous about this, so I asked plant-hunter Tom Hart-Dyke, who holds the national collection of eucalyptus at his World Garden at Lullingstone Castle in Kent what he thought. I sent him the pictures above and he agreed wholeheartedly that this was the way to go, so I got Ed to book his guys in.

The newly shorn tree always looks a bit bereft, but you can see that the basic framework of the tree is still there, and still looks quite attractive.

I've still got branches I can hang my bird feeders on. And Ed's guys are so good - they're fast, they tidy up really well, but best of all, they seem to really care what the tree looks like! And they didn't have an easy job on a morning like this one, which was wet and windy.

Because of the huge fatsia growing alongside it, the eucalyptus doesn't look as naked as it might. Now all it has to do is put on some new growth. Watch this space!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Going totally tropical in south London

When I opened my garden on Sunday 28 August, among the visitors were Clive and Steven, who were opening their own garden for the National Gardens Scheme for the first time this Sunday, 4 September.
I'd seen Clive's blog so I knew his garden was sub-tropical - far more so than mine. If that wasn't enough to entice me over to Camberwell, in south-east London, I felt the least I could do was to go and support two new boys! Even after five years of opening, I still know that feeling of terror mixed with excitement...
Clive and Steven put me to shame. I only remembered to put up a poster outside my house on the morning of the opening. They had fliers on the trees in the street - thank goodness, because although I'd taken a note of the postcode, for the sat-nav, I'd forgotten to take a note of the house number!
If you didn't know, you'd never have guessed they were opening for the first time. The atmosphere seemed completely relaxed and welcoming, from the friendly person taking the money (Steven's father, I think) to the tea and cake area. Clive and Steven were both chatting away to the visitors as if we were old friends, which was lovely. I do like it when owners are friendly.
The garden is quite exciting, because it's an L-shape, consisting of the usual back garden, plus a bit of land to the right, which runs behind the neighbouring houses. There's a pond at the end of the original garden, and a greenhouse in which Clive grows carnivorous plants.
The new bit has given Clive a blank canvas (if you can call nettles a blank canvas) on which to create a vegetable garden cheek by jowl with borders filled with dahlias, crocosmia, sunflowers and tithonia, which glowed in the late afternoon sun.
Did I say sun? Well, it was sunny when I was there, which was about 4.30pm, but they'd had exactly the same experience as me the week before. Just before they opened the garden, the heavens decided to open too. It's so demoralising when that happens, so I'm delighted to hear that they eventually got 130 visitors.

You enter the garden by pushing your way through a tropical fantasy of tree ferns and palms and bananas, before you emerge on to the broad open lawn. I love this approach - some people find it claustrophobic, but I like the sense of going on an adventure and not knowing what you're going to see.

The white dahlias on the left are 'Klondike' and the sunflowers are 'Earthwalker'. Clive said he was a bit disappointed with them because the heads drooped but I thought the colours were gorgeous.

The vibrant reds and oranges of the dahlias were reflected in the vegetable garden, where marigolds jostled with kale and lettuce. And even Mina lobata, below, which was blazing away in the courgette patch.

Here's another one of those sumptuous sunflowers. You can see some tithonia on the right, looking as if it's standing on tiptoes to try to be as tall.
It was difficult to tear myself away from Camberwell, but I wanted to go and see the garden belonging to my friend Nigel Buckie, who was opening for the British Red Cross. We used to open on the same day for the NGS, but Nigel had some issues with his bamboo so didn't open for a year or so while he sorted it out.

The end result is an improvement, I think - there is more contrast between textures, and whereas before Nigel had a rill, which was like a straight, shallow canal, he now has a proper pond with koi in it. There's a bridge over the pond too, with a bamboo pole, and the sound of the fountain gushing into the deep water blocks out the usual south London noises (traffic, sirens, neighbours etc).

He's also built himself a tiki bar out of bits of bamboo at the end of the garden. It was all set up for cocktails, but it was getting rather chilly, so I settled for one of Nigel's scones and a cup of tea.

I loved these little birds, which looked as if they were about to run off through the undergrowth. Apparently someone who came to visit the garden just left them there.
Of course, the garden I would have loved to see on Sunday was my friend Karen's garden.
She was opening for the NGS for the first time too, in north-west Wales.
I'm sorry, Karen - I had to steel myself to face the South Circular on a Sunday afternoon, let alone north-west Wales. But I'll make it one day!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Now we are two - sometimes

I was so busy getting ready for the garden opening, and then so busy getting over the garden opening that I haven't had time until now to tell you about our new arrival. On Monday morning, my daughter and I set off to collect Mario.
He was supposed to arrive with Luigi, but broke his leg, so he's been staying with the breeder, Karel, until he was given the all-clear by the vet. He's now fully recovered, with only a patch of shorn fur to show for his injury, and that's growing back fast.
Mario is a very glamorous little chap, because he is a chocolate Abyssinian, and these are still quite unusual. The darker fur, on his head, back and tail, is a kind of milk chocolate colour, but the overall effect is a sort of toffee shade.

I was a bit apprehensive about what would happen when the two cats met. There was no way they would remember each other after six weeks, and while Luigi had settled into our household very happily, Mario was older and bigger and had yet to get to know us. Would they fight?
Well, the answer is yes. And no. For the first few days we kept Mario shut in the study with his own litter tray and food. This was to allow him to get to know us, and feel secure about his surroundings before venturing out into the rest of the house - or encountering Luigi.
Luigi was intrigued by the new arrival, but also rather miffed. He would scratch at the study door occasionally, and on the few occasions he managed to slip inside, he made Mario's life a misery by chasing him round the room and jumping on him.
However, while the two had these wrestling matches, I didn't notice any hissing, or ears going back, or yowls of pain, so I was hopeful. Neither of them seemed to suffer any injury. (We, meanwhile, are covered with scratches from where "affectionate" cats have leapt onto our laps or shoulders.) The chasing and the ambushing were a strange, silent ritual, in which Mario (the bigger cat) always gave way to the pestiferous Luigi.

I found this article on the internet, to which we clung in the same way that new parents cling to the works of Miriam Stoppard or Gina Ford. Every paw-thrust or pause in the hostilities sent me rushing to the computer to see whether I should be embarking on the Next Stage.
In the end, we let Mario out of the study this morning. Luigi chased him round and round the living room again and again. And again. We got very bored with it. And eventually, SO DID THEY!
By the time I had to shut them both (erk!) in the study while my daughter threw a surprise birthday party for her best friend, they were well on the way to a truce.

After a tasty supper of incredibly expensive cat food, it was time to settle down for the night.

A quick goodnight kiss...

A last goodnight miaow for me...

And it was off to sleep. Shhhhh!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A bright September morn

The morrow was a bright September morn;
The earth was beautiful as if newborn;
There was nameless splendor everywhere,
That wild exhilaration in the air,
Which makes the passers in the city street
Congratulate each other as they meet.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

September dawned with a beautiful morning today, so much so that those of us who were on Twitter first thing were positively lyrical in our celebrations of the first day of autumn. It inspired me to get out in the garden and take some pictures.
I was also inspired by patientgardener's End of the Month View meme, which I always love to read, but don't always participate. I like her honesty about her garden, and the way she identifies the problem areas - although I have to say that every time I've seen it, it looks absolutely wonderful.
So having wandered around taking September morning sunshine pictures, I thought I'd identify a couple of problem areas in my garden. The first two involve luzula, or woodrush. Why anyone would want to grow this plant is completely beyond me. I inherited it from the previous owners and it have never looked anything other than a mess, even when in flower.
I suppose the only good thing you could say about it is that it is pretty much indestructible. (And that's possibly not a good thing to say.) It's not architectural like some grasses, and the colour isn't very interesting. It just sits there in a green, spreading lump.

This is woodrush in its normal tatty end-of-summer state. This one looks even more tatty than normal - not quite sure why. I think I might have left a pot sitting there earlier in the year.

Here's another patch. I've been meaning to take this out for ages, but I think autumn/winter 2011 may be the moment. While I'm at it, I may dispense with the Brunnera 'Jack Frost' as well. Very nice plant, but not here - it's too silver.

This is the border that leads up to the luzula beneath the holly tree. It's also a problem, as it only really looks fresh and interesting in spring. The feathery acer is in a pot, which makes me think I might take the advice of Graham Rice, who has just brought out a new book called Planting the Dry Shade Garden, published by Timber Press.
Graham wrote about this in The Independent Magazine a couple of weeks ago, and if you have problems with dry shade (and very few of us haven't), the book is well worth a look.
I was particularly struck by his suggestion of building a raised bed in dry shady areas, which gives you the chance to put in a reasonable depth of soil, and help plants combat problems such as rain shadow, and lack of nutrients thanks to tree roots. This border is a perfect candidate.

I'm also thinking of ripping apart the bit above. I like the bronze phormiums, but the libertia, while very pretty in spring, soon look past their sell-by - and these have been here for years. I've tried to get away with revamping it by placing pots among the existing plants, but I think it needs a total replant.

The lawn got somewhat trashed by the visitors on open day, but I know from experience that it will bounce back, given a bit of top-dressing and spiking.
So what does look good? This red banana (Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii') was the first to be potted up this season, so it's also the biggest. It's at least 6ft.

And this pheasant grass was a present from Peter Clay, who is a fellow NGS garden owner - and also happens to co-own Crocus. He very kindly tried to persuade me to have something more exotic, but I just loved this, particularly with the bronze phormium beside it.

It used to be known as Stipa arundinacea, but is now called Anemanthele lessoniana. I do wish that when botanical experts were renaming things they'd spare a thought for those of us who have to tell other people what the plant is. "Stipa" is much easier to say than "Anemanthele".

I'm very proud of the fact that my Fascicularia bicolor flowered for the first time this year. It was a huge talking point at the open day - unfortunately, because like Anemanthele, it's not the easiest name to roll off the tongue. Fascicularia look incredibly exotic (they're known in my house as the "baboon's bottom plant") but they are really, really tough. I've got two and they've been in pots in the garden for years without any protection whatsoever. They'll grow in sun or shade too. A perfect plant - if you like the saw-toothed leaf look.