Saturday, December 25, 2010

A very happy Christmas to everyone

Life's been very busy in the run-up to Christmas - work, snow, work, more snow - so I'm truly sorry I haven't had time to reply to all your lovely comments and Christmas wishes. This is just to say that I really, really do appreciate them ...

and to wish you a very


Saturday, December 18, 2010

In the bleak midwinter...

Two hours of snow this morning has put an end to this afternoon's carol service and two drinks parties this evening. I hate snow!
I'm playing the piano at a neighbour's carol party tomorrow evening, so in between practising "In The Bleak Midwinter" and "Winter Wonderland" in seven different keys (to accommodate people who can't sing high/low), I thought I'd have a little carol posting of my own.

7.45am. Snow had fallen ...

10.30am Snow on snow ...

11.30am Snow on snow... (especially on the bamboo)

7.45am. Oh Christmas tree ...

11am. Oh, Christmas tree?

When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. The footsteps are not those of Good King Wenceslas, however, but my daughter, who took this picture from the back of the garden. Everything is so laden down with snow, you can hardly see the house.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The winter garden

There's a simplicity about gardens in winter that I find very pleasing. It's a sort of pared-down beauty that provides a very tranquil contrast to the flashy glamour of summer.
I love my garden when it's at full throttle in July and August, but I also love it now, when everything is cut back and tidied away. I love the clean lines and empty pots and stark branches.
If you think I'm beginning to turn into a neatnik, you'd be absolutely right. The other day, I was even thinking of edging the lawn to give it that final crisp and even finish. Sanity prevailed, however.
Inside the house, practically every surface is smothered in throws and cushions and all the paraphernalia designed to make the job of getting warm, snuggling up and falling asleep as easy as possible. In the garden, though, everything is stark and swept.
This is in huge contrast to midsummer, when it is the house that is cool and minimalist and the garden that is burgeoning with foliage and flowers, and cushions and candles.
All the cannas, which until what seems like five minutes ago were happily flowering away, have a snug new winter home in the shed. The pond has been dredged of dead leaves. The containers have been emptied of frost-mushed nasturtiums.
I don't know where I found the time to do it, but I'm glad I did, because it was very therapeutic. I also found the time to write a comment piece for today's paper about Gardeners' World. I hesitate to give you the link, because I've bored you all rigid with my views on the subject many times before, both here on this blog and on other people's blogs. But just in case you want to read it, go here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The return of the Lord of Cord

I'm not sure whether this means the BBC is listening to viewers or not...
Many, many thanks to Arabella Sock and The Inelegant Gardener, who have already done full artistic justice to this story.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It never snows in London in November ...

... and I never thought I'd have a snowball in hell's chance of winning a Garden Media Guild award.
Yet here I am, with three inches of snow in Wandsworth, and a framed certificate on the wall that tells me I am the Garden Media Guild Journalist of the Year 2010. Unbelievable.
The Garden Media Guild describes its awards as the "Oscars" of the UK garden media world. Their annual lunch is a very glitzy affair, in gardening terms, where all the starry writers and broadcasters get together with the rest of the industry at The Brewery, which itself is an award-winning venue in the City.
I'd been invited by lovely Martyn Cox to sit at his table, which was described by James Alexander-Sinclair as the "Billy No-Mates" table. In other words, none of us had managed to schmooze an invitation from one of the big horticultural trade companies, which meant we had to pay for our own tickets.
Well, all I can say is that it was a small (well, perhaps not that small) price to pay for a very entertaining lunch. On the table were Laetitia Maklouf, Michelle Wheeler, Dawn Isaac, Mark Diacono, Michelle Chapman, garden writer and editor Tiffany Daneff, writer Alex Mitchell, Amateur Gardening news editor Marc Rosenberg, and garden photographer Rachel Warne.
There was a lot of giggling, a lot of gossiping, and a lot of cheering and whooping once the awards started.
We may have been "Billy No-Mates" but we were certainly not "Billy No-Awards". No fewer than four of us won awards - Marc (News Story of the Year), Mark (Columnist of the Year), Dawn (New Talent) and myself. Naturally, there were huge cheers for other friends who won, who included Lia Leendertz for her blog, Midnight Brambling, Anne Wareham, for her website Thinkingardens and Matthew Wilson for his TV series, Landscape Man.
So, a great day. In fact, so great a day that I sort of seized up with shock and while everyone else waltzed off to the pub, I went home and had a cup of tea.
I know that sounds pathetic, but here's the thing: I write about gardening because it's a passion and I want to share that passion with everyone else. As a mainstream news journalist who works full-time for a national newspaper, I'm in a very good position to get my stories into the main body of the paper rather than be restricted to a section or a weekly supplement.
I'm very grateful to The Independent for giving me the space to explore stories or issues I think are interesting not only to the gardening community but to the public at large. The idea that I might get an award for doing that is ... well, it's unbelievable.
Thank you very much to the Garden Media Guild and to everyone else who made yesterday so much fun.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Work, work, work (and Sir Elton John)

OMG, work!!! Just when I thought I'd got the work/life balance just about right, my job came storming back and elbowed my spare time out of the way.
So I haven't been in the garden, I haven't put my plants away for the winter (despite the fact that it is now snowing in London), and I certainly haven't been blogging on a regular basis. Gardening-wise (and work/balance-wise) I am A Complete Failure.
However, tomorrow I'm going to the Garden Media Guild Awards lunch and I'm hoping to catch up with lots of old friends.
And on Thursday I have a day off so who knows? I may even set foot in the garden. In daylight!
So what have I been doing with myself? Oh, you know, the usual. Going to work, running the newsdesk, attending editorial conference, chivvying reporters. By the way, we had a guest editor today. You may recognise him...

He was great - really, really good. Very clued-up about everything, very decisive. It was as if he'd been editing a newspaper for years.

Paula and Tracey, two of the picture desk staff, had been really excited about Elton coming in. But by the time they finished their shift, they hadn't really seen him, let alone had a chance to take a picture on their phones. So I asked him if he would mind having his photograph taken with the picture desk staff, and he said sure, get them all in. So here they all are, with their hero. I had to go too, because they were too shy to go into the conference room on their own. From left, it's Anna, me, Paula, Tracey and Gerry.
Afterwards, they all said thank you, and he said: "No, thank you, for all your hard work." Isn't that nice? As Gerry said, not a tantrum or a tiara in sight.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rules of (Royal) engagement

Got a bad cold, so I'm feeling a little grumpy and jaded.
I was quite interested in the royal engagement when it was first announced, and at work argued that we should cover the story in The Independent (which is famously a royal-free zone). By the end of day one, however, I was bored rigid with the whole affair.
It's nothing to do with the couple themselves, who as far as I can tell, seem very nice, but the yards of footage and newsprint that will be taken up over the coming months with inane speculation and chatter.
Indeed, the most interesting thing about the Sky News coverage of the announcement - which consisted of a helicopter hovering over Buckingham Palace for hours on end - was that you could see how big the Palace gardens really are, and how green the surrounding bit of London is, thanks to all the Royal parks. My republican colleagues were fascinated by this, bless them.
You probably know that the souvenir manufacturers are already churning out 'Wills and Kate' mugs and tea towels and so on as fast as they can. However, no one - as far as I know - has thought about the horrendous marketing possibilities this offers the horticultural trade.
So, I would like you all to look out for the following, who will be named and shamed on Victoria's Backyard, and presented with the naffest, most tasteless Royal wedding souvenir I can find (or can bring myself to buy).

The first grower to name a rose/sweet pea/whatever 'Kate Middleton'
The first grower to name a rose/sweet pea/whatever 'Royal Engagement'
The first garden centre to stock - or set up a dedicated display of - Wills and Kate souvenirs.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Jennifer Owen - a heroine for our times

I'm too busy organising other people to write things at the moment to have time to write anything myself. I guess you could say my role is more the late Dino De Laurentiis than the even later Orson Welles. However, I'd like to commend to you this piece in today's Independent by my colleague Jonathan Brown about the naturalist Jennifer Owen. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Autumn and its consolations

I've really enjoyed sweeping up the leaves this year. It's not a chore I look forward to with enthusiasm, but on a bright crisp morning it can be very therapeutic.
These are two of my Japanese maples - Acer palmatum var dissectum 'Seiryu' (in the pot, with the red, lacy leaves) and Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki'. You never know with acers whether they're going to colour up or not. Sometimes, if it's been a hot dry August, the leaves have shrivelled before they've had time to take on their autumn tints.
This year, both 'Seiryu' and 'Osakazuki' are performing well. 'Seiryu', despite its rather fragile appearance, seems to be a real toughie.

There are other things going on in the garden too. The Fatshedera lizei is in flower, which looks fabulous against its big leaves. Whoever had the idea of crossing a fatsia with an ivy, I salute you. You get the best of both plants (big glossy leaves, flower heads) but without the downsides (tendency to take over the garden). The loquat is also in flower, but unfortunately I can't reproduce the scent, which is like frangipani.

In neighbouring gardens, we've been treated to the annual Shock and Awe display that is Guy Fawkes night in the UK - sometimes called Bonfire Night. I love the fact that this coincides almost exactly with the time of year when one wants to be burning leaves.
How thoughtful of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators to time the Gunpowder Plot - in which they planned to blow up the palace of Westminster, the House of Lords and King James I - at the beginning of November.
I haven't had time to buy fireworks, and bonfires are frowned upon (unless they're part of a public display). But with leaf colour like this, who needs flames?

Talking of Bonfire Night and the Gunpowder Plot, you may be interested in a story I covered for today's Independent, about the Tudor mansion of Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire, and its lost garden.
Hope you enjoy it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pssst, wanna see a big picture of Will Giles?

Well, you can if you buy The Independent tomorrow (Saturday 6 November). At this time of the year, all those people who have exotic and sub-tropical plants - which includes me, and Will at The Exotic Garden - are pushing and pulling things with large leaves into sheds, poly tunnels, garages and greenhouses for the winter.
So, I thought I'd write a piece about it for the The Independent Magazine. You'll be able to read it online too - but you'll miss the picture of Will. And you'll miss the picture of my garden, come to that (but you've probably seen enough of those.) Enjoy!

Monday, November 1, 2010

A word of warning...

It's not quite the Christmas present-buying yet, so before you start compiling your lists, I'd just like to say a word of caution about Frances Hilary, the gardening accessories company.
I'm a fan of their products - I have their apron, which has a very useful split down the front which is great if you're bending down and lifting things. And I have their kneeling pad, which is very comfortable and comes in a nice discreet khaki.
I'm also keen to support small British companies who provide quality goods in the face of competition from huge conglomerates. So last spring, when my gardening bag began bursting at the seams, I thought I'd treat myself to one of theirs.
I went to the website, placed the order, and thought no more about it. That was on ... well, actually, it's so long ago, I have difficulty remembering. Luckily, the payment for the bag went through on the day I bought it, so I have a record that it was 31 July.
Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and nothing arrived. I emailed customer services: no reply. I waited a week and rang the number at the top of the website. I was told that head office dealt with internet orders. Could I have the number, I asked, and I could talk to them direct? "Sorry, no," was the answer, "we're not allowed to give it out."
At the end of August, I sent a slightly stroppy email to customer services. No reply.
I then rang the customer services number and was told that, yes, head office handled inquiries about orders. No, I couldn't have the number and, furthermore, everyone was on holiday. They'd be back in the first week of September.
The second week of September, I rang the customer services number again. It had been discontinued. I rang the Covent Garden branch. A very nice assistant said she'd investigate. She actually rang me back! To say that there had been a delay with the material for the bags which had resulted in a glitch in their manufacture. I would have one within two weeks.
Two weeks later, the bag had still not arrived. I waited until the end of September and rang again. The bag would be on its way in a couple of weeks, I was told.
Anyway, it's now November. Throughout this time, there has been nothing on the website to indicate that the bag is out of stock, or that there might be some delay in delivery.
Throughout all this time, no one from the company has voluntarily contacted me to tell me there was a problem with my order. They've been very polite and apologetic when I have rung, but you get to the stage where you don't want apologies. You just want YOUR STUFF!
I told Frances Hilary that I was writing about this on my blog because, as a journalist, I feel it's only fair to give them the right of reply. On the other hand, as a customer I felt I had every right to complain.
They came back to me and were deeply apologetic. They said they had indeed had great problems with the fabric supply but that was no excuse for the experience (or lack of it) I'd had. I think they're at that stage where business is taking off and they're about to expand but are still working out the logistics.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

This is what happens when ....

... you're busy helping to launch a new newspaper. The tulip bulbs, which arrived about a month ago, remain unplanted. The garden remains untidy and unswept. (You haven't actually been out there for a couple of weeks, but you can see the mess through the window.)
You don't get round to reading your favourite bloggers. You don't get round to blogging.
But Britain now has a new newspaper, the i, so the 12-hour days have all been worth it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Getting high with the king of grass

I spent last week in New York City. I'd promised my daughter ages ago that I'd take her there for her 16th birthday. Unfortunately, she was doing exams at the time of her actual birthday, so I suggested we go during October half-term (when, incidentally, it was also my birthday). We spent most of the time shopping, and eating, and shopping, and going to the theatre, and, erm, doing yet more shopping. It was fabulous.
I knew that the merest hint of garden visiting would not be popular with my daughter. However, I asked Alice at Bay Area Tendrils if there was anything she'd particularly recommend (she travels a lot) and she suggested the Highline, in the Meatpacking District. Of course! How could I have forgotten about the Highline?
Better still, said Alice, there were some very groovy designer shops in the neighbourhood, with which to lure my daughter. Perfect.
For those who don't know, the Highline is a disused railroad on the West Side of Manhattan. It was built in the 1930s to carry freight, but no trains have run on it since 1980. Property developers began eyeing it up in the 1980s but thanks to a vociferous local campaign it was saved and in 2006, work began on the task of turning it into an elevated public park. (You can read the whole story on the website.)
It begins at Gansevoort Street and extends as far as 34th Street, but only the section between Gansevoort and 20th has been completed. The second section is under construction, but the first opened to the public in June last year and in my opinion, it is one of the most delightful and imaginative public landscaping schemes I have ever seen.
The planting design is by Piet Oudolf, the Dutch landscaper whose speciality is so-called prairie planting. The overall effect is of a wild space, dominated by grasses and trees such as sumac and airy birches. At first glance, it looks just like the sort of landscape you would find on any old disused railroad, but the addition of rudbeckias, asters and coneflowers, and the contrasting heights and textures of the plants tell you that here is a master at work.

One of the plants I particularly liked was the thread-leaf bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii. You can see its golden spires beside the lounger on the left.

Although the Highline is a continuous walkway, each section has its own distinct personality. We joined it at the Gansevoort Stair, and walked north through the Gansevoort Woodlands, marvelling at the way the original railroad tracks have been incorporated into the design.
The paths are not straight - and neither are the tracks - but follow a sort of slalom, intensifying the impression of a woodland or country park walk and forming a very pleasing contrast to the Manhattan street grid below.
Just under halfway along is a sundeck, where huge loungers have been constructed. Couples can cosy up on a sunbed for two, while more solitary types can read in peace on a solo version.

As well as the sumacs (Rhus typhina and Rhus glabra) which are showing off at this time of year in their autumn reds, trees include birches, serviceberries (amelanchier to British readers) and three-flower maples (Acer triflorum). Here, trees frame a view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The low-growing grass is Nassella tenuissima, or Stipa tenuissima as we know it in the UK.

In autumn, the grasses are the stars of this off-Broadway show. There are so many of them - Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'; Sporobolus heterolepis; Bouteloua curtipendula; Calamagrostis brachytricha. Nestled among them to provide textural variety are Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride' and Sedum telephium 'Red Cauli' - a Piet Oudolf favourite.

So what did my daughter think of Mr Oudolf's masterpiece? Was she blown away?
"It's grass, Mum," she said. "Get over it."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Just because ...

The sun is shining ...

... and this Virginia creeper looks so pretty (even though it has absolutely no business climbing up the bamboo)

... and I love the pattern of the sunlight on the lawn

... and the fact that the containers are still full of colour

... and flowers and foliage

... and the way the terracotta pots glow in the afternoon sun.
But really, who needs an excuse?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ideas for Adrian's garden

My colleague Adrian, like many Londoners, has a small garden - a shady, brick-paved courtyard. (That's not his on the left, by the way, but belongs to my friend Philip, whose garden in Homerton is in the Yellow Book.) Like many journalists, Adrian works long hours, and he would like to come home on a summer evening and be able to spend what is left of his day breathing in the fragrance of flowers. I think this is a lovely idea, and I also think he ought to try to find white scented flowers, as they will not only provide perfume, but be easier to see at dusk.
My suggestions included Trachelospermum jasminoides, known as star jasmine (or Confederate jasmine in the USA). This will survive quite happily in a big pot and as well as white fragrant flowers has the bonus of glossy evergreen leaves. Admittedly, it doesn't flower as freely in shade as it does in sun, but the screen of green leaves is worth having anyway.
Nicotiana is a must. I find N.affinis does well in pots and seems to be more snail-resistant than N. sylvestris. Adrian might also like to try the F1 Perfume series, which are smaller, but very reliable. The pale lime ones look good with white.
Lilies are a must and all seem to do well in pots. L. regale has a knockout perfume but in my experience is more susceptible to lily beetle. Perhaps Adrian could go on a lily beetle hunt of an evening, squishing the little red b****** while pretending they were a particularly uncooperative, late-filing contributor. Very therapeutic.
The new varieties of nemesia have wonderful scent. N ‘Wisley Vanilla’ makes a wonderful mound of ice-cream scented flowers. And although busy lizzies aren't scented, they are perfect for shade and good at providing pools of white at twilight. The 'New Guinea' ones have bigger flowers and more interesting foliage.
I think people often underestimate the importance of foliage in gardens in their feverish search for flowers. Personally, I'd have lots of hostas, and perhaps Japanese maples and ferns, which will all survive in pots. I'd probably have a fatsia, too, or a choisya, again to provide year-round evergreen interest. In my opinion, as you can see from the photograph of Philip's garden above, a lush green background is far more restful than a blank wall and offers a real sense of sanctuary from the world.
A water feature - perhaps one of those overflowing pot versions with moving water that won't allow mosquitoes or midges to breed - provides a restful background noise which distracts from traffic and aeroplanes. Here's the water feature in Philip's garden, which is simply a ceramic bowl with a wall spitter connected up to a pump. All the boring bits like pipes and wiring are hidden behind the surrounding pots of hosta and zantedeschia, and large cobbles.

Anyway, these are just off the top of my head ideas. What I'd like - and what Adrian wants - is lots and lots of suggestions. So get thinking - and commenting!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

An Exotic day at Great Dixter: Part II

Lunch at Great Dixter was cheese tart, with green salad leaves and Pink Fir Apple potatoes, those knobbly ones that look a bit like Jerusalem artichokes. The potatoes were full of flavour and the texture was just right - waxy, but not too hard. The cheese tart, I felt, was imbued with the spirit of Christopher Lloyd. Like Christo himself, it had no truck with political correctness or calorie-counting or anything soppy like that. It was very, very tasty. Pudding was gooey chocolate brownies with freshly sliced oranges.
As you'd expect with a study day on exotics, most of the students were men. There were some women there, but only two of us appeared to be as passionate about the subject as the blokes. There's something about boys and big leaves.
Everyone was very friendly, though, and conversation over the lunch table centred around winter losses (everyone seemed to have lost hardy bananas this winter) and canna virus. (Fergus had explained that Great Dixter no longer brought in any cannas from outside nurseries in an attempt to eradicate this disease.)
The afternoon activities began with a tour of the cellars and greenhouses. Fergus explained that all the cannas and dahlias were lifted and stored in the cellars, which aren't heated but whose thick walls provide adequate frost protection. The rhizomes are packed in old compost in boxes or containers (Fergus recommends those expanded polystyrene fish boxes, which give even more protection against cold). They are watered once a month, just to stop them drying out completely.

The cellars are also used to store potatoes - here are the delicious Pink Fir Apples we had for lunch.

From the cellars, we went to the greenhouses, where the plants from the Exotic Garden are stored in winter. "Emergency supplies" are also kept there, to be brought out when gaps appear later in the season or when a plant is damaged.

Some of the greenhouses are heated, some are not. The latest one is sunk about three feet below ground level, partly so that the earth itself provides insulation and partly because Christo didn't want to see the greenhouses from the house! (They're very nice greenhouses: I wouldn't mind looking at them.)
Fergus showed us how to propagate ferns from spores. You look at the back of a frond to see if the spores are ripe (ie when they turn dark) and then leave the frond on a piece of paper to dry out. The spores will drop, whereupon you can sprinkle them on the top of a pot filled with well-watered compost. Wrap a polythene bag around the top of the pot and leave to germinate in a warm place. He made it look dead simple, but I bet it's not...
Then we had a mini seminar on splitting dahlias. This also looked simple: the trick, said Fergus, was to pull off some of the "collar" with each piece of rhizome. He managed to transform a big dahlia in what looked like a 9inch pot into nine new plants.
Cannas could be treated even more roughly. Just look for the growing points and cut in between them, using a sharp carving knife or breadknife. (I know this is simple: I've done it. In fact, I didn't even look for the growing points, but just slashed straight down between the stems.) Remember to do this in spring, when the plants will grow away well. It's easy to see the growing points then too.

Finally, snitching an apple from a nearby tree (what a fantastic year it's been for fruit here in the UK), we arrived at the Exotic Garden.

The enormous leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifera 'Rex' - known in our household as T Rex

A stooled paulownia spreads its vast leaves against the sky

Mina lobata, or the firecracker vine, scrambles through cannas and Verbena bonariensis


More dahlias!

Even more dahlias!

Yet more dahlias!

And some more dahlias. I must apologise for not noting down the varieties. But after a bit, my head began to spin ...

Ah, I know this one. This is (not a very good picture of) Dahlia 'David Howard'

And so, our notebooks full and our heads buzzing with information, we left Great Dixter via the nursery. But I couldn't go before one last wander round the gardens.