Friday, May 29, 2009

A present from VP

I've been away for a couple of days, helping my mother with her garden. She'd fallen against a chair and cracked a rib, so I was more than happy to give her a hand planting up her newly landscaped garden (more about that if she ever sends me the before and after pictures).
My mother lives across the road from my younger sister, who had supervised the hard landscaping, so what with spending time with family, admiring the new paving, eating huge barbecues, enjoying the glorious weather and digging, I'm a bit behind with things in my own backyard, not to mention the blogging.
However, I thought you'd like to see the gorgeous zantedeschia that VP gave me when she came to stay. It might also give you a bit of an insight into the way my mind works - or rather, doesn't work - when I'm in the garden.
VP's present was Zantedeschia 'Picasso', a beautiful creamy-white variety of calla lily with a purple spathe and spotted leaves. It came in a lovely green pot with a mulch of purple slate, so it was a very elegant addition indeed. It would look lovely on the table...

It would look just as attractive next to my watering can...

It would look fabulous next to the frog pond...

Or indeed the big pond...

And wonderful on the step outside the patio doors, where I could look at it every day, rain or shine...

So where will I put it? Oh, good grief, I can't decide. But wasn't it clever of VP to give me something that would look so good anywhere in the garden?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chelsea friends

To the Chelsea Flower Show on Saturday, but in a different guise this time. I was doing my volunteer stint for Plant Heritage, formerly the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, who were running the cloakroom at the show. If you're going to Chelsea, the cloakroom is a very useful place to know. It's by the London Gate (at the Sloane Square end of the show) and it never seems to run out of space. If you've brought a bulky coat in the expectation of freezing rain, or the sort of garden ornaments that endanger the eyes of passers-by as you carry them around, head straight there. All the donations people give in return for leaving their coat/suitcase/picnic basket go to Plant Heritage and this year we raised £4,145. You can find out all about Plant Heritage and the work they do here.
I stopped to say hello to my Independent on Sunday colleague Lisa Markwell, whose daughter Terri was doing a wonderful job on their stand giving away posters for their Let Children Grow campaign, which aims to get schoolchildren cultivating and eating their own food. There was a lot of interest in the posters, which I'm sure was partly due to people being so enchanted by Terri. I loved the way she shouted: "Spread the word!"
I also stopped to say hello to my friend David Rhodes, but he'd gone for the day so I congratulated his partner John Rockcliffe on the gold medal they won this year for their begonia display. David, if you're reading this, congratulations too!
When I finally arrived at the cloakroom, I found we also had a younger helper: Helena, the daughter of one of the Plant Heritage volunteers. Chelsea is not incredibly child-friendly - pushchairs and children under five are banned because of the crush - but again, people just seemed to love the sight of a child helping to run things. I'm sure Helena's efforts helped raise the number of donations we were given.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chelsea people

I had intended to post lots more pictures of Chelsea show gardens and wonderful plants from the Great Pavilion displays. However, as I said to Emily when she commented on my last post, unknown to me, my art-student son had removed the memory card from my camera, and I'd barely got inside the pavilion when the memory ran out. (The camera has its own memory, but it's not very big. A bit like mine.)
I was very cross, but when I, erm, remonstrated later with my son, he said it was my fault for not checking my camera before I went out. Honestly, teenagers!
So, what did I make of Chelsea? Not that much, really. It's not a vintage year, and there wasn't really anything that made my heart beat faster. To be completely honest, the best bit was bumping into old friends, and meeting Anne Wareham, who has been a huge support to me, and gossiping to Emma, and having VP to stay. It was wonderful to be able to show VP round my garden - and I can't tell you what bliss it was to sit down and watch the Chelsea Flower Show television coverage with another gardener. So I think it will be a Chelsea that I'll remember for people rather than plants.
Here are the non-gardening highlights:

The chap in the middle is, of course, Stephen Fry, who is a very charming man indeed. He'd been approached by the man in the hi-viz vest who had asked if he could take a picture of him on his cellphone "for his daughter". Of course he could, said Mr Fry, but why not be in the picture himself as well?
The man holding the cellphone is Valentine Low, who writes for The Times, and is the author of One Man And His Dig, about his allotment. (He's also an old colleague of mine from the Evening Standard.) He was in the middle of interviewing Stephen Fry when the man in the hi-viz vest came along, so he was pressed into service as official photographer. Hi-viz Man was so thrilled, he dropped his walkie-talkie. So sweet!

This is the first thing I saw as I entered the Great Pavilion. There's always a wonderful sense of anticipation as you look around and decide where to go first. However, I bumped into Cleve West just about here and so failed to notice whose gorgeous clematis display this was.
There's always a steel band playing in the marquee on press day, on one of the Caribbean displays, and the big nurseries serve champagne, so there's a kind of carnival atmosphere. You see celebrities like Ringo Starr and Rod Stewart strolling around, and in the middle of all the excitement, there will be Anna Pavord or Graham Rice studiously taking copious notes on some new plant as if all the brouhaha was a million miles away.

I loved these guys in their rosy shirts serving rosé fizz. They were at the Peter Beales roses stand (naturally), where the Highgrove Rose was being launched by Prince Charles later that afternoon. It was when I took this picture that the camera's memory ran out. So there was nothing for it but to stay and have a glass of pink champagne and a gossip with Valentine. It's a hard life being a hack.

Lovely Emma! With lovely Lisa, left, who edits the Independent on Sunday's Sunday Review. Aren't I lucky to have such nice colleagues? Look at Emma's red coat - it made spotting her in the crowds really easy. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

Chelsea, chelsea!

And so to the Chelsea Flower Show, for press day, which as Emmat has observed, has become a bit of a junket. It's a chance to gossip, to meet friends, to gawp shamelessly at celebrities, drink free champagne and generally have a nice time. Oh, and look a few gardens, perhaps.
I'm useless at spotting celebrities. I'm always the one going: "Where? Where?" 15 minutes after they've sauntered past. But I am capable (just about) of spotting a trend, and the trend at Chelsea this year seemed to be towards naturalistic planting in quite a subdued, restrained range of colours, with a lot of burgundy (flowers and foliage) set off by green and white.

This is the Children's Society garden, designed by Mark Gregory, in the Urban Garden category. He won a gold medal for his garden for the same charity at Chelsea last year. That was the front garden, and this is the back, which has a garden office (working from home allows you to see more of the family as well as reducing your carbon footprint) and raised beds for veg. The white flowers on the left are libertia, which was also used to great effect in the Daily Telegraph garden, below, designed by Ulf Nordfjell. The concept is a cottage garden for the 21st century. Again, there's a lot of libertia, including some in pots. I'm all for this particular trend, especially as libertia self-seeds in my garden like crazy. I may start a little libertia factory.

Emma and I both liked The Key, below, the Eden Project's garden which took homelessness as its theme. We thought some people might think it was too messy, and there certainly were some elements that seemed a bit chaotic, but there was something cheering about it. I liked the way the sprawly planting contrasted with the posts at the back. There was a kind of "Who gives a ..." atmosphere that was rather beguiling. 

In total contrast, the Canary Islands' Spa Garden, above, was all sophisticated edges and sub-tropical plants. I really liked it, but eavesdropping on the people around me ("Love it!" "You're joking, I hate it!"), it seemed to be dividing opinion. I loved the uncompromising use of green - there were no flowers at all as far as I could see, though it did include things like Geranium maderense - and the way the shapes of the plants played against the straight lines of the hard landscaping. I guess some will say that it's too commercial, too much like corporate planting.
My colleague Anna Pavord thought the same about the Laurent-Perrier garden, designed by Luciano Giubbilei. I was amused to see that everyone referred to him as Luciano, rather than attempt to pronounce his surname. I thought this garden was a shoo-in to win best in show, but Anna thought it was "like a hotel garden". 

Friday, May 15, 2009

The taxpayers' revenge: saying it with flowers

If anyone would like to see what happens when you try to get the British taxpayer to pay for your garden, check this out

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The axeman cometh (closely followed by the debt collector)

Yes, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I've had the tree surgeons in. It must be a great job. Swinging from branch to branch, being out in the fresh air all day, high enough above the rest of the world to feel a certain sort of superiority. I'd go and retrain as a tree surgeon right away if it wasn't for two things: I get dizzy if I stand on a chair, and I'm so clumsy, I'd probably chop off my leg the minute I picked up a chainsaw.
The tree surgeons were dealing with the big purple-leaved plum at the end of the garden. It's a lovely tree, but it gets quite big, and casts quite a lot of shade. The fact that the leaves are purple makes it seem even darker, so I gritted my teeth and called in Edward Payne & Co, who had been recommended by my friend Georgina. She opens for the Yellow Book, so I know she has high standards.
I was impressed by the fact that they seemed reluctant to plough ahead without having a good think about it first, and that they were worried about whether a nest in the middle of the tree might be inhabited. It turned out to be an empty squirrel's nest.
The tree surgeons were closely followed by the electrician. I want to put a dedicated socket for the pond pump somewhere near the pond. At the moment, miles of unprotected cable runs all the way round the garden, cobbled together by moi with the help of a waterproof cable connector, underpinned by the safety net of an RCD (the circuit breaker - you can tell I've been talking to an electrician, can't you? It stands for Residual Current Detector). The circuit breaker protects me, sure, but it's prudent to have armoured cabling too.
After paying for all this, I'm expecting a knock on the door from the bailiffs. Springtime is so expensive.

The cherry tree, after pruning. It's difficult to cut a tree back like this without it looking too "scalped", but I think they've done a pretty good job.

It's so nice not to have a trampoline! This area is not so much a work in progress as an idea waiting to occur, but that's quite exciting in its own way.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A typically tropical moment

I've been feeling a bit dispirited about the garden recently. I know I've been joking about dithering and dawdling, but it really has been an effort to get out and get anything done, or think up new ideas, or muster any enthusiasm.
The spirit of the garden seemed to suffering too. It used to be quite in-your-face, a larger-than-life space full of larger-than-life plants. Now it seems a bit lacklustre, a bit - dare I say - boring.
I remember when I first moved in, someone came round to pick up their child and when they saw the garden, they exclaimed: "Goodness! It's like the Riviera." Wow, I said, that's a nice compliment. "Actually," said the mother rather waspishly, as she looked disapprovingly at the variegated cordylines and scarlet cannas, "I meant the Devon Riviera."
Actually, I'll settle for any riviera you care to mention - French, Cornish, Bulgarian, Mexican, German or Italian. (Well, maybe not Mexican.) I love that combination of blue skies and brilliant flowers, that on-holiday feeling that comes from being surrounded by Gauguin-bright colours and sub-tropical plants.
My garden used to give me that feeling. Sitting outside felt like being on holiday, especially on a sunny day. I decided that what I had to do was to try to recreate that atmosphere, even if it meant offending the gardening style police, who hate variegated foliage, and bright colours, and anything that looks remotely like municipal park bedding or French roundabouts, and doesn't look like Sissinghurst.
Usually I spend far too much time worrying about what other people think. However, on a visit to our local B&Q DIY store yesterday, to buy some screws to reattach the hinges on a kitchen cupboard, I came across a selection of the brightest, most garish geraniums (ie pelargoniums) you could hope to find outside of a floral clock. I didn't spare a thought for what more sophisticated souls might say. I found myself beaming with delight, and my hand stretched out, almost without me being aware of it, to take one down from the display.
Reader, I bought them. I bought the multi-coloured foliage ones ('Contrast') and the bronze foliage ones ('Vancouver Centennial') and the bright yellow foliage ones ('Occold Shield') and even the dark brown foliage ones (I think they were called 'Chocolate Twist'). Being B&Q plants, they weren't particularly expensive, though they are really well-grown - bushy, with lots of strong, sturdy stems and flower buds. Buds that will produce bright red flowers. How did I ever have the nerve?
And you know what? I went home and put them down on the terrace, still in the black plastic trays I'd filched from B&Q to keep them upright in the car, and felt happier about the garden than I had done for ages.
So what am I saying, that garish is good? Well, possibly, but more importantly I think the message is that we should have the confidence go with what we   like. Whether your taste is for box parterres, or garden gnomes, or massed busy lizzies that spell out Manchester United, indulge yourself. After all, it's you that's got to look at it most of the time.
There's a picture below. You might want to put on a pair of dark glasses.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A tribute to U A Fanthorpe, 1929-2009

The death was announced today of the poet U A Fanthorpe. Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (though she was always known as U A) is one of the most brilliant British poets of the past 50 years. She was tipped at one point to be the first female Poet Laureate and was the first woman in 315 years to be nominated as Oxford professor of poetry. (What a benighted country this is!)
Anyway, I first discovered U A Fanthorpe's poetry thanks to Germaine Greer and her Poems for Gardeners anthology. I thought I'd reproduce my favourite for you, because it just seems incredibly appropriate. Reproducing it is probably illegal, but here goes.

May 8th: How to recognise it
The tulips have finished their showy conversation.
Night's officers came briefly to report,
And took their heads off.

The limes have a look of someone
Who has been silent for a very long time,
And is about to say a very good thing.

Roses grow taller, leafier,
Duller. They have star parts.
Like great actors, they hang about humbly in the wings.

On the lawn, daisies sustain their candid
Childish shout. Hippy dandelions are stoned
Out of their golden minds. And always

The rub-a-dub-dub recapitulation
Of grass blades growing. The plum tree is resting
Between blossom and fruit. Like a poker-player,

She doesn't show her hand. Daffodils
Are a matter of graceless brown leaves and rubber bands.
Wallflowers have turned bony.

This is not the shining childhood of spring,
But its homely adolescence, angular, hypothetical.
How one regrets the blue fingertips staggering
Up from the still dank earth.