Saturday, August 3, 2013

For future reference, see Awkward Hill

I moved from Wandsworth, in south-west London, in November 2012, and I now live in the Cotswolds. You can read about my garden there at
Tales from Awkward Hill.

Friday, January 25, 2013

That "leave the garden for a year" rule

Running two blogs is trickier than I thought. When I started up my new blog, Tales from Awkward Hill, about life in Bibury, Gloucestershire, I thought I would use this blog, Victoria's Backyard, to write about gardening in general, and my new blog to write specifically about my own house and garden.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but only a couple of months in, I find myself writing about a subject that would sit equally well on either. So ... it's going on both! Apologies if you feel cheated. What can I say? I'm a cheapskate.

The classic advice when you move into a new house and garden is to leave the garden for a year before you make any changes. This allows you to see what is in the garden - to identify trees that may not have been in leaf when you moved in; to discover what bulbs come up in spring; to find out where the hot/dry spots and the cool/damp spots are; to determine the best place (shady or sunny, depending on your personal taste) to put your garden table and chairs; to see how your views of the neighbourhood (or their views of you) work when trees are both in leaf, and bare in winter.
Indeed, there are a whole host of good reasons not to rush into making changes in a garden you have only just acquired.
What the experts don't tell you, however, is that it is incredibly frustrating simply to sit and look at a garden if you are used to pottering happily outside, cutting a new lawn edge here or replanting an area there. Luckily, my garden is under a blanket of thick snow at the moment, so that has meant a few days less in the year when I am not driven mad by the urge to go outside and CHANGE THINGS!
However, it's still only January. What on earth am I going to be like by the time I've been to the Malvern Spring Show, to the Chelsea Flower Show, to Barnsley House down the road, or to the local gardens that open under the National Gardens Scheme? Even a visit to the garden centre is sometimes enough to inspire me to rejig a part of the garden completely. Must I completely ignore all these sources of inspiration and temptation?
Then there is the long list of plants that keep metaphorically poking me in the ribs, chorusing: "Plant us, plant us!" Must I really go a whole year without putting in Rosa 'Ballerina', or Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Lanarth', or Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo', or Dianthus carthusianorum or the whole host of other things on my wish list?
Yes, there are snowdrops coming through, which is very exciting (at least, it would be if I could see them). Somewhere under all that snow, there are primroses and bluebells waiting in the wings, and I'm looking forward to their gala performance later in the spring.
However, there are other bits of the garden that I really don't want to see in their current state this time next year - or indeed in six months' time. One is the gap between the two terraces, at the back and the side of the house, and I have already had a new walkway built that connects the two. "Now you can follow the sun right round the house with a drink in your hand," said the builder. With a drink in my hand? Are you kidding? With a heavy load of plants in my wheelbarrow, more like.
Running alongside the terrace at the back are two small borders. One is full of marjoram (where it isn't overgrown with grass, nettles and perennial weeds such as plantains). The other has a huge clump of what looks like Iris sibirica at one end, and a matching selection of grass, nettles and weeds.
When I first viewed the house, in late August, the irises had long gone over, and the borders looked a bit of a mess. I thought then that tidying them up would probably be my first project.
I've already made the borders deeper and deturfed the bits that were completely overgrown. They are full of bulbs - lots of snowdrops, by the look of them - so a full-scale replanting can wait until March. Technically, spring is too early to split the iris, but I'm going to take some of it out next month anyway, and pot up the divisions to plant in the other border or elsewhere in the garden. If they don't take, it's not the end of the world, and if they do, they will help create a sense of unity.
The experts say Iris sibirica should be divided in summer or early autumn, but the experts also say its spread is around 30cm to 90cm, depending on the variety. This particular clump, or cluster of clumps, is about 6ft in diameter. So much for experts.
I want a classic cottage-garden look here, with billowing clumps of hardy geraniums, lavender, Verbena bonariensis and roses, followed by sedums, grasses and rudbeckia to carry the torch on into early autumn.

Work on the new bit of terrace got under at the beginning of December. It's a basic block wall construction, with a traditional dry stone facade.

It's now finished, but for the first couple of weeks, I couldn't bring myself to walk on it. I was so pleased with it, I didn't want to spoil it with muddy footprints!

Making a start on the borders at the back of the house. Oh, for lighter evenings! If you do something in the garden at this time of year, you have a daylight window of about four hours. And by the time you've remembered to take a photograph, it's dark.

Ooooh, look - there's a paved bit hidden away underneath here. How lovely - almost as exciting as snowdrops.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Goodbye to the Backyard

As some of you will know, I have sold my house in London and I am moving to Gloucestershire. I've been a bit superstitious about telling everyone until I exchanged contracts (I don't know why - as Lucy Corrander remarked to me: "If only we people had the power...")
But to quote an old proverb, "there's mony a slip twixt cup and lip", and I didn't want to tell everyone about this great upheaval if, a few weeks later, I had to tell them it wasn't actually taking place.
Everyone asks me the same questions when I tell them I'm moving, so to save your poor little fingers typing them out, here is my attempt at a helpful FAQ:

Does that mean I'm giving up my job?
Yes! I've resigned from my current job which is editor of the Saturday edition of the i newspaper. I will still carry on writing about gardening, mainly for The Independent and the i, but I'll be able to work from home rather than have to go into the office.

Will I miss London?

Yes, of course! I think London is the greatest city in the world. (Well, I'm biased.) But it is a tiring city in which to work, and sometimes it feels almost as if people go out of their way to make one's life far more stressful than it needs to be. Just the simple act of getting up and going to work, or coming home from the office, can sometimes seem like an obstacle race.

Will I miss my friends?
Yes, of course! But I hope they'll come and stay with me in Gloucestershire. It's less than two hours' drive from London, and the train to Chippenham or Kemble takes less than an hour and a half. And you have to remember that, because of the hours I work, I hardly ever see my friends in London. There are many friends - not to mention family - I will see more of when I move.
I'll miss my colleagues too - I've worked at The Independent for nearly 13 years. There are many things about office life I love - the banter, the silly running jokes, the excitement of a breaking story. However, I've tried to imagine myself missing work as I sit by my fireside looking out over the meadows on my Gloucestershire hilltop, and somehow I can't see it. I certainly won't miss the canteen...

Will I miss the Backyard?
I don't think so. In a way I feel as if I've got to the end of the road with my current garden.
I'm very excited about having a new garden, which will be totally different. In London, you can create your own landscape, but in Gloucestershire, the surrounding countryside demands a much more appropriate garden. I already have plans, and I'm looking forward to telling you how it all goes.
I will keep the Victoria's Backyard blog, however, and I think I will use that for discussing gardening issues and news and so on. 
I also now have a new blog, Tales from Awkward Hill, which will specifically be about life in Gloucestershire.
I've written a piece for next Saturday's Independent Magazine about leaving my garden, and I have to say they've done a fabulous job on it, so do get a copy if you can.

Will I be taking lots of plants with me?
I don't think so. Many of them wouldn't survive outside the London microclimate. Bibury is about 2ºC colder than London most of the time, and the garden is not nearly as sheltered. Having said that, I will still need an extra removal truck just for the garden...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Revenge of the Yellow Book

Anne Wareham tells me that her garden, Veddw, has been dropped from the National Garden Scheme's Yellow Book next year, apparently as a punishment for the piece she wrote in the Spectator earlier this year.

She say the Chief Executive of the NGS, George Plumptre, told her: "I don't think you have any concept how many hundreds of humble, innocent garden owners and NGS volunteers were deeply hurt by your diatribe in The Spectator earlier this year."
Anne has a reputation for being controversial; some would say abrasive. That's what she does; in the cosy world that is British horticulture, she is the grit that helps create the pearl in the oyster. Perhaps a better analogy would be to compare her to the stone in your shoe that stops you in your tracks and makes you question your preconceptions.
The NGS, on the other hand, is a charity. It has no business being controversial, abrasive or - apparently - vengeful. I don't know George Plumptre very well, but he has always seemed to me to be a sensible sort of chap, so I very much hope that this is a misunderstanding.
Personally, I don't always agree with Anne's views. We differ greatly on the subject of lawn edging, for example. However, I think she has very interesting things to say about garden design, and about the way we appreciate gardens.
I went to a lecture by Sir Roy Strong during the Olympics, and he was talking about how the British inhabit a landscape of the imagination - a make-believe world which has more to do with sentiment and nostalgia than it has to do with reality.
He cited The Haywain (below) by John Constable - one of the most famous paintings in the world - and pointed out that Constable didn't paint it from life, but in his London studio. Not only that, he painted the scene as he remembered it from his childhood.

We British have a very irritating tendency to look back, like Lot's wife, or Orpheus (and remember what happened to them!), at past glories. Gardeners are always trying to recreate a Sissinghurst or a Hidcote, and public taste applauds and colludes.
I'm not at all convinced that it is healthy to wallow in les temps perdu. Tempting, yes, but ultimately unexciting and uncreative. At least let's not get cross when someone tries to prod us out of our Edwardian daydream.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Harvest festival for hipsters

I had a rather novel experience yesterday evening - I went to an RHS show and found I was one of the oldest people there. It was the RHS London Harvest Festival Show, and for the first time ever, the show was open until 9pm.
Now, this was good in itself. I can rarely get to the London RHS shows because they are held during the week, during the day. I have to take a day off, or slope into work a bit later. The idea of being able to go to a show on the way home, instead of lugging my purchases onto the Tube and into the office, is brilliant.
Not only that, there was a cocktail bar. Yes, a cocktail bar! It was Lottie Muir's Midnight Apothecary bar, which Lottie, aka the Cocktail Gardener, started at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, and which has already become an institution.

There was a huge queue for cocktails, with hardly a person over 30 to be seen. Being a cynical hack, I suspected that the RHS had drafted in some of their younger members of staff to swell the crowds. However, this was not the case: the two women behind me said they'd read about the event in Time Out, while the women in front of me had seen it advertised on an events listings website.

While waiting in the queue for our cocktails, we were entertained by the London Vegetable Orchestra. I'd seen them at Hampton Court a couple of years ago, but had never heard their full repertoire.
It wasn't all cocktails and courgette clarinets. There was the usual Fruit and Vegetable Competition, with specimens of quite extraordinary size and length laid out on the tables. Wesley Kerr pointed out to me the rivalry between the Duke of Marlborough (known as "Sunny") and the Duke of Devonshire (whose prep school nickname was Stoker), who compete every year to see who can win first prize for their grapes. I love the idea of "Sunny" and "Stoker" jostling for first prize with their bunches of muscats. Talk about pistils at dawn.
There was food too: cheese, from Godsells in Gloucestershire (whose cheeses include The Three Virgins and Singing Granny); mushrooms and sausages, plus apples from the Wisley orchards.
Anyway, if the RHS is still concerned about ways to encourage the under-30s into gardening,  I reckon they can stop worrying. All it takes, apparently, is a few cocktails and a group of men fingering weirdly shaped vegetables.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Britain in Bloom

I'm ashamed to admit I've never been to the Channel Islands. My knowledge of them is limited to the 1980s BBC detective series Bergerac, which was set in Jersey. So I was thrilled when the Royal Horticultural Society invited me to attend the annual Britain in Bloom awards, held in St Peter Port, in Guernsey, at the weekend.
Britain in Bloom is seen by many as a rather cosy, middle-class affair - a kind of Neighbourhood Windowbox Watch. This is a bit unfair. Taking part in Britain in Bloom can effect a genuine transformation in neighbourhoods, not only aesthetically, but economically, environmentally and socially. It's not surprising, then, that the judges aren’t just looking at the quality of the summer bedding but also at the level of community participation and environmental awareness.
Take Herm, for example. One and a half miles long and half a mile wide, with a population of 63, it lies between Guernsey and Sark, and it was one of the gold medal winners in the 2012 awards, as well as carrying off  the RHS Britain in Bloom Tourism Award, presented to the finalist that demonstrated the most effective use of their "In Bloom" participation as a means of supporting tourism.

Herm could be said to have more in common, horticulturally speaking, with Madeira than Manchester. A holiday island paradise, brimming with sub-tropical specimens such as echiums, brugmansia and osteospermums, it might not be the first image that springs to mind when you hear the phrase “Britain in Bloom”. However, as with many places in the British Isles, the beautiful surroundings it can offer visitors are crucial to bringing in tourist cash. If the only way people can get to you is to take a three-mile boat trip from Guernsey (itself a 40-minute flight from Gatwick), you have to be able to provide something with a bit of a wow factor once they get there.

Two full-time gardeners, Brett Moore and Roseanne Wheeler, ensure that the tiny island looks its best from April to October, and as well as the sub-tropical plants, there’s a wealth of wildflowers – dog roses, foxgloves and rare orchids.

Perhaps the economic imperative explains why the affluent south-east doesn’t figure as prominently as you might expect (given its mild climate) in the Bloom awards. The number of long-range commuters and the prevalence of second homes also means that it is difficult to build the sense of mutual endeavour that glues a community together.
The only finalist south of Watford in the Champion of Champions category for 2012 was Thornbury in South Gloucestershire, while the outright champion of champions was the Northern Irish village of Broughshane, in Country Antrim.

It’s been a tough year for anyone involved in horticultural endeavours. The weather was horrible and money is tight, so all the participants deserve credit, believes Roger Burnett, chair of the RHS Britain in Bloom judging panel, for rising to the challenge.
He said: “I love seeing the imaginative ways communities overcome challenges. It was reported that groups were pulling out of Britain in Bloom because of these problems but, in fact, we had a ten per cent increase in the number of groups signing up, making it a record year.”
For the St George’s Crypt homeless shelter in Leeds, joint winner of the RHS Britain in Bloom Young People’s Award, the emphasis is on cultivating pastoral care rather than pansies and petunias.
There has been a homeless shelter at St George’s since 1930, but three years ago, following a huge refurbishment, the charity decided to redesign the garden  and incorporate it into their Social Enterprise scheme.
Chief executive Chris Fields explained: “The theme is nurture, and we offer either catering or horticulture. Anyone who comes here is offered 15 hours of personal development to see if they like it, and at the moment we have six ex-offenders and six ex-addicts on the scheme.”
The trainees run a small market garden, and are just about to take delivery of 30 chickens. They’ve taken part in guerrilla gardening projects in the city, liaising with local developers to plant up unused plots, and they also provide garden maintenance for local people – under supervision, of course.

Mr Fields said: “I don’t believe in the Playstation/pool table culture. Getting back to nature really suits certain individuals, who wouldn’t benefit from sitting in a room with a group of people talking about their problems. For addicts, especially, it can be helpful, because they can measure their progress against the growth of the plants and the passing of the seasons."

Hearing about this sort of scheme is quite humbling. Indeed, being at the dinner in Guernsey on Saturday made me very aware of the astonishing efforts that are being made through the UK, by ordinary people, to make our cities, towns and villages better places to live.
All the Britain in Bloom volunteers I spoke to had one thing in common; a huge pride in their local community. I was on a table with the group from Spofforth, a village near Harrogate. They weren't in it for the money (they themselves don't get any), or the publicity. Their idea of reward was to get a certificate with an RHS gold medal, and when they won their gold, they all burst into tears.