Monday, May 31, 2010

Great Dixter

This is the real secret of life - to be completely
engaged with what you are doing in the here and now.
And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

Alan Watts, Work as Play

I suddenly realised today what exactly it is about being in a garden that I enjoy so much. It is that sense of living for the moment. And not just living for the moment, but - in very special gardens - a sense of stepping into another world.
I find it very difficult to switch off. I annoy myself by always thinking ahead, anticipating the next chore or task or problem, instead of sitting still and enjoying the "here and now".
This is what makes Great Dixter a very special garden for me. It's not the most manicured garden you'll ever see, or the biggest. But it is certainly one of the most magical. Every time I've visited I've had that sense of time stopping, of being aware of nothing more than the colours of the flowers, the hum of insects and the birdsong. It's the most relaxing feeling in the world.
Dixter is very much a working garden, but the sight of a member of staff busy in one of the borders, or pruning a climber seems only to heighten the sense of being in a different universe.
What matters is not the mortgage or the recession but how wonderful that golden elm looks against the clipped castellations of the yew hedge. The only urgency is to breathe in the scent of the velvety wallflowers glowing amidst the orange tulips. The only reason to move is to explore the paths that lead you on through yet more flowers - tulips, forget-me-nots, magnolia, lunaria - guarded by the solemn yews.
I can't tell you how much pleasure it gave me to show Great Dixter to Gail and Frances, two innocents from Tennessee abroad in the land of afternoon tea at "harf parst four".
St Augustine once said that "he who sings praises twice". (Actually, he didn't say it quite as concisely as that, but never mind; that's what he meant.) I think St Augustine, who himself found his faith in a garden, would have to agree that she who visits a garden with other gardeners has twice the enjoyment.
Indeed, she (or he) who visits a garden with other garden bloggers has one hundred times the pleasure, for each account, from each different perspective, and the comments they inspire, reflect off each other like mirrors to provide an endless picture of an experience.
Thank you, Gail and Frances. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share some time and some gardens with you.

The yew hedges, which offer tantalising glimpses of gardens beyond

A wheelbarrow sits beneath a pergola, waiting for the next load of clippings

A blaze of tulips. Great Dixter doesn't go in for labels, so I have no idea what variety these are

A golden elm glows like neon against a yew hedge. This tree, one of the gardeners told us, had Dutch elm disease, and had been radically cut back. It has since put out new shoots and seems to be recovering. I read somewhere that elms that are kept clipped, for example in a hedge, withstand the disease better, because the Dutch Elm beetles feed on dead wood.

I think this is Tulipa 'Portofino', which garden writer Nigel Colborn says are "loathsome" and reminded him of blood seeping through bandages. I'm obviously lacking in taste - I thought they were gorgeous. They reminded me of raspberry ripple ice cream.

Frances with a cute little kitty!

These are oast houses, which are common in Sussex and Kent, and were used in the olden days to dry hops for beer. Hops are still grown in Kent, but the picking is now mechanised and the drying is done on an industrial scale.

The vivid yellow of a sumach provides a dramatic backdrop to traditional spring pastels. Would you have put these colours together? No, nor me, but they work, don't they? I think it's because the purple of the tulips is just blue enough to be a pleasing contrast.

A stately rheum spreads its leaves in the sunshine. Rheum is definitely the plant of the year for me. I've seen it everywhere: Malvern, the Chelsea Flower Show, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter. Of course, I now have to have one.

Ooops, we've just got time for a quick detour on the way home. I couldn't let Frances and Gail go back to America without showing them a real medieval English castle, complete with turrets and moat. This is Bodiam Castle, a ruin, but quite beautiful.

It was shut by the time we got there, so we contented ourselves with strolling round the moat. It looks an idyllic scene in the evening sunshine, doesn't it? It was freezing.

Frances and Gail being attacked by man-eating mallards.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Show time, part 3. A quick whiz round Wizzers

As I said in my last post, VP and Patientgardener were staying with me ahead of their visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, and when we finally got home from Rob's party, the talk turned to what they might do before they went to the show.
They had afternoon tickets for Chelsea, which meant admission from 3.30pm onwards. They'd arranged to have lunch with some friends first, but that left the morning free.
The Chelsea Physic Garden perhaps? No, it didn't open until midday. (Why?!)
The Museum of Garden History? Hmm, trouble is, the museum is a fairly brisk trot from the nearest tube or mainline station, and none of the buses from my area go directly there. (If you want to go shopping in the King's Road, however, I'm very well placed...)
I did some brisk calculation and decided there was just time for me to drive VP and Patientgardener to the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley (or Wizzers, as Arabella Sock calls it), give them a superfast tour and be home in time for lunch (or in my case, work).
I have never been round Wisley so fast. I have never been to Wisley without spending hours dithering in the garden centre. I have never been to Wisley without browsing in the wonderful bookshop. I have never been to Wisley without having a cup of tea and a piece of carrot cake. It just shows that everything is possible.
Wizzers is only half an hour from me by car, so to a certain extent, I use it as my local garden centre (although my local garden centre, which is within walking distance, is also very good). I was really touched by how thrilled VP and Patientgardener were at the thought of going and I was delighted that the weather was sunny and warm.
Wisley was on good form. Admittedly it was a little early for a lot of the planting, particularly the herbaceous borders, the Piet Oudolf borders and the Tom Stuart-Smith borders around the Glasshouse. (Wisley is a great late-summer garden.) But it was good to see Cleve West's children's garden being used by an enthusiastic group of primary school kids and the Penelope Hobhouse garden looked mistily beautiful. We even had time for a quick look at the rhododendrons and azaleas on Battleston Hill.

Wisteria overhangs a view of the canal, designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe

The rock garden, one of my favourite places. I love gardens that have winding paths and secret waterfalls

Aloes and other succulents in the arid zone of the Glasshouse

Looking down on foliage from the viewing platform in the tropical section of the Glasshouse

Clouds of nepeta line the central path in the garden designed by Penelope Hobhouse.

Isn't this the most amazing tree? All three of us were entranced by it. It's Toona sinensis 'Flamingo', or Chinese mahogany, according to VP.

Show time, part 2. Rob's party

So, I'd been to press day at the Chelsea Flower Show (see previous post), I'd scuttled home to write my piece for The Independent and now it was time to pick up VP and Patientgardener from the tube station.
They were going to Chelsea the following day, and were staying with me overnight.
To celebrate, Rob had decided to hold a drinks party in his new shop, The Garden Sage, which is about 10 minutes from me by car.
The weather was fabulous on Monday and the evening was warm and sunny. Rob's shop has folding doors so it was an ideal place to wander in and out, looking at the plants and sipping Pimm's. The conversation centred around Chelsea (of course), tropical plants and GCSE biology (Julia's students are doing exams at the moment.)

This is just to prove to our American friends that we do occasionally get good weather in the UK. Clockwise from left: Julia (in the white linen trousers), Liam (Rob's business partner), Rob, Patientgardener and me (with the oh-so-fashionable orange nail varnish. That's what I tell everyone who says: "Yuk, what a lurid colour". Who cares, it covers the dirt.)

Patientgardener (aka Helen) offers Ms B (aka Barbara) a taste of her echeveria.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's show time. Which means it's party time

Blogging wasn't supposed to be like this. When I started my blog, two years ago, I'd envisaged sitting alone in my attic, the computer keys tapping out a lonely staccato message as the light of a pitiless moon slanted in through the broken skylight.
Instead, it's been party, party, party.
A couple of weeks ago, there was the Meet@Malvern get-together at the Malvern Show.
This week, it was the Chelsea Flower Show, which means serious partying interspersed with frantic bursts of real work.
I was at the press day for Chelsea on Monday, which is always a fantastic bash, filled with celebs and camera crews and free champagne and gardening journalists to gossip to. This year was made even better by glorious sunshine. Of course, being British, we all complained it was far too hot, and stood around ostentatiously fanning ourselves.
Unfortunately, while everyone else was swigging back the Laurent-Perrier, I got a call from work asking to me to file asap for the following day's paper. You can read the results here and here. So forgive me if I just stick to brief captions.

Designer Mark Gregory, who won three gold medals, with chef Jamie Oliver. Mark designed the Children's Society garden, which was conceived as a teenage space with gazebo, plunge pool and pizza oven. Jamie was cooking pizza in it and very good it was too. (I had some.) Mark won a gold for his Children's Society garden, and his company Landform also built the Tourism Malaysia garden designed by James Wong, and the Music on the Moors garden designed by Christina Williams. I don't think anyone's ever won so many medals in one go before.

Lovely Carol Klein at work with the horrible BBC, who spend the whole of press day amusing themselves by taking up vast amounts of space around the exhibits and pushing print journalists like me out of the way. As I passed this stand, they asked me to keep back and not take photographs. Naturally, I took absolutely no notice whatsoever.

Thomas Hoblyn's garden for Foreign and Colonial Investments. I'd seen this during build-up and wondered how they were going to incorporate the Yucca rostrata into the design, as it's quite a difficult colour. I thought the finished planting worked well - I liked the combination of the rusty red with the pale blue foliage. So it really didn't need a naked dancer popping up in the middle of it as far as I was concerned ...

...but of course, some people think that's the sort of thing you have to do at Chelsea to get the photographers' attention. By the time I'd left Chelsea, I never wanted to see - or hear- this garden again. All morning long, they had stunts of one kind or another, usually involving attractive young women and invariably accompanied by deafening music.

Let's look at some gold-medal winners. Above is James Wong's garden for Tourism Malaysia, using plants that are either native to the region, or cultivars derived from native species. It had a sense of serenity and simplicity, yet gave you that feeling of wanting to keep on looking at it that always seems to mark out a good garden at Chelsea.

The best in show. Andy Sturgeon's design for the Daily Telegraph, and a worthy winner. I loved the way he picked up the rust of the pillars with the verbascum and irises, and the mixture of formal straight lines with billowing plants. He also seemed to have thought about where the light was going to hit the garden, as the sun seemed naturally to spotlight the focal points.

Another peaceful oasis by Robert Myers for Cancer Research. The theme of the garden was 'Enlighten' and the designer has played with light and shade, making the transition from the white birches and underplanting to a central seating area surrounded by pink and blue flowers.
I secretly wished he'd kept the white theme going all the way through.

Tom Stuart-Smith for Laurent-Perrier. Most people agreed that if Best in Show hadn't gone to Andy Sturgeon, this would have nabbed the prize. My photograph doesn't do it justice. I want those box balls!

Fashion designer Paul Smith being photographed alongside the Sri Lanka exhibit. Why? Heaven knows.

Can you see what it is yet? Yes, it's Rolf Harris, national treasure and a hero in our family thanks to his series Animal Hospital. Bless.

Naturalist David Bellamy in full flow for some radio station or other.

Another bloggers' convention. Gardening journalist Helen Yemm talking to The Fat Gardener, who was on the Ethel Gloves stand.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A diversion to Chelsea

I was going to tell you all about Great Dixter, wasn't I? Well, I will, when I get a minute. I've been busy this week, because as well as my day job (night job, actually; I've been night-editing, which means working from 5pm to 12.30am), I've been moonlighting (or rather daylighting) at Chelsea, writing a preview piece which is in today's Independent. You can read it here.
So do forgive me if I'm a little incoherent with fatigue. I'm going back to Chelsea on press day (Monday) so I'll do a longer post about it then. In the meantime, here are some pictures to whet your appetites.
If you'd like to read a much more detailed preview, go over to Veg Plotting, where VP is discussing the latest trends, and the Eden Project show garden, Places of Change.

James Wong's garden for Tourism Malaysia - a fabulous tropical design inspired by lush rainforests

Vibrant dahlias on the Winchester Growers stand in the Great Pavilion. There's something about dahlias that makes them difficult to photograph in all their blazing glory. Or maybe it's just me..

Heucheraholics' display. They'd just started to build this, but I loved the glowing roof of Heuchera 'Sweet Tea'. Can't wait to see the finished exhibit.

Mark Gregory's garden for The Children's Society, which is designed to be a teenage hang-out, complete with plunge pool, firepit and pizza oven, where Jamie Oliver will be cooking pizza on press day. I know my kids would absolutely love it - and it's great to see something designed for older children to enjoy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

London: the Sissinghurst Sisterhood

On the way home from Malvern with Gail and Frances, the weather improved a bit and the forecast for the following day was quite good - cold, but sunny. I'd originally thought of taking the Tennessee Two to Wisley and Hampton Court Palace, since at both these places there is plenty to do under cover.
Emboldened by the weather forecast, however, I decided to be a bit more adventurous and take them to Sissinghurst and Great Dixter.
Now, call me stupid, but I have often arrived at Sissinghurst - a two-hour drive from London - to find that it is shut. It shuts mid-week, so I've learned to check and double-check whether it is open on the day I intend to go there. I rang, they were open.
I rang Great Dixter. They were shut. Horrors! Were they normally closed on a Monday, I asked the nice lady who answered the phone? No, she said, they were having a study day. Couldn't we just sneak in, I asked? No, absolutely out of the question, she said.
I told her I was a journalist from The Independent and I was showing two Americans the most important English gardens. We wouldn't be there until late afternoon, I said, and we promised faithfully to keep quiet and out of everybody's way. She said she'd have a word with Fergus Garrett, the head gardener. After two heart-stopping minutes, she came back on the line. We could come!
(I'd never normally do this kind of name-dropping for myself. But Frances had said it was her favourite English garden, so how could I let her down?)
Seven miles apart, Sissinghurst and Dixter have some superficial similarities - they are both restorations of existing buildings, they are both set in the Kentish Weald (similar to the German wald, meaning woods or forest), and they are both the product of a personal, passionate vision. Both use yew hedges to enclose a series of "rooms" and both have come to epitomise English gardening at its finest.
But they are incredibly different in spirit. Sissinghurst suffers slightly from the fact that it is so popular - it is difficult to take a photograph of anything without anyone in the shot. Some people are considerate, and move out of the way, but others (like the couple eating their picnic lunch at the table under the white wisteria-clad pergola in the White Garden) are not. There is always very much the sense that it is a showplace.
We had a very odd encounter at Sissinghurst. On the way into the estate, Gail had asked me how I pronounced the English name Philippa. (The whole weekend had been one long exchange of pronunciations. It wasn't so much a case of two nations divided by a common language as two nations differing over the use of the long and short 'a').
I told her, then she said: "Do I mean Philippa? You know the Scottish actress, what's her name, Law." "Oh yes," I said, "you mean Phyllida Law."
There was a farmer's market at Sissinghurst that day and as we were browsing among the jams and pies and cheeses, a very elegant lady with a chignon came and stood beside me to sample some chutney. She looked vaguely familiar, so I sneaked a second look. It was Phyllida Law. She was with her daughter, the actress Sophie Thompson.

The Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst, which blazes with a vibrant colour scheme of red, yellow and orange. At this time of year, the starring roles are taken by wallflowers and tulips. Later in the summer, there are dahlias, kniphofia and crocosmia.

The Nuttery, underplanted with spring flowers, including white bluebells and epimediums. In Vita Sackville-West's day it was planted with primroses and polyanthus

The Lime Walk. This is the most formal and least cottagey of the Sissinghurst gardens and it was the pet project of Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West's husband. The limes are pleached and he used to like to prune them himself, which unnerved his wife, especially as he fell off the ladder a couple of times. Planted in 1932, it is now impossible to tell where the branches of one tree end and the next begin.

The Moat Walk, above, is planted with yellow azaleas and bluebells. The Orchard, below, to the right of the Moat Walk, features apple trees, and ornamental cherries given to the Nicolsons by Captain Collingwood Ingram, known as 'Cherry' Ingram.

I can think of nothing nicer than to visit a garden in the company of other enthusiasts. For me, visiting Sissinghurst with Gail and Frances was a joy. My knowledge of plants is not extensive - I usually know about things that I like or grow. But Frances's knowledge is encyclopaedic. She pointed out the veratrum, below, which I had never seen before. I consoled myself with the thought that Vita Sackville-West might not have recognised it either - it's not mentioned in the plant index of Anne Scott-James's book on Sissinghurst, which was written in 1974.

This was intended to be a post about Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, but I've rambled on for so long I think Great Dixter will have to have a post to itself.

Malvern: the long goodbye

Sunday morning at Malvern dawned clear and cold. Yay, sunshine! We were supposed to vacate the Lighthouse by 11am, but needless to say we were still sitting around the table talking at 12.30pm.
Reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away - VP and Yolanda heading for Bristol airport and me heading for London with Gail and Frances, dropping Ewa at the station in Great Malvern on the way. Considering we hadn't met before that weekend, it was ridiculously difficult to say goodbye. There were lots of hugs.
Gail and Frances and I felt even worse when we dropped Ewa at the station. She looked so lonely waiting for her train. We were slightly distracted, though, by the station itself (below) which has to be one of the prettiest I have ever seen.

Here's Ewa waiting for her train. While I was taking this photograph, I suddenly noticed that each of the columns supporting the platform canopy had a different design at the top. Some had flowers, some had leaves. Very appropriate for a station used by garden bloggers.

And then there were three of us - me, Frances and Gail. I'd hoped to break the journey with a visit to Mill Dene but it was shut (more about UK garden opening times in the next post ...). So instead we headed for Batsford Arboretum, at Moreton-in-Marsh, in the heart of the Cotswolds.
Batsford is interesting not only for its trees but also because it is the former home of the Mitford family, who lived there from 1916 to 1919. It is Batsford that features in Nancy Mitford's books as Alconleigh, the home of the eccentric Radlett family.

I'd chosen to visit Batsford for the usual three reasons - it offered interesting planting, a nursery and somewhere to have tea and cake. The draw at this time of year was supposed to be the blossom (magnolias and ornamental cherries) but as you can see from the pictures, it was a great time to see the maples.

Here's a golden-leaved maple against a huge blazing bonfire of a copper beech. Below is Acer pseudoplatanus 'Brilliantissimum'. The name says it all.