Saturday, July 31, 2010

The kitchen makeover: Doors to manual

Yay, I have a new kitchen (well almost, apart from yet another coat of paint on a cupboard door that's been sanded down a million times but refuses to give up its streaky look).
I'm not trying to say the decorators were here for a long time, but it did get to the point where Colin fed the cat and took in the post when he arrived in the morning.
The main aim of the revamp was to instal new appliances - fridge, freezer, oven, hob, microwave. This means I am now frantically ploughing through the manuals to find out how they all work.
The microwave manual completely defeated me. It's about half an inch thick, but only two pages are devoted to the English explanation - which was, of course, unintelligible. The rest of the book is made up of French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Russian and Slovak explanations. I hope they're clearer than the English one.
The thing that annoyed me most was the diagram that showed you what your control panel looked like. It may look like this, it said, or on the other hand, it might look like that, or it may look different again, depending on which model you bought. Well, thanks a bunch! But what does it DO? There didn't seem to be room for that bit.
This is where sons come into their own. My son, like any self-respecting undergraduate, can operate anything that has a digital display of some kind. The conversation went like this:
Me (after an hour of poring over the manual): "I can't get my head around the microwave - I think we'll have to keep the old one on the counter for a few days until I have time to ring the manufacturer."
Rory (without even glancing at the manual): "It's quite simple, Mum." (Fiddles with buttons for a nano-second)
Me (nervously): "So what are those numbers?"
Rory (patiently): "They're the different power levels, Mum"
Me: "So how do you set it to cook something?"
Rory (with another flicker of fingers over the control panel): "Like this, Mum"
Me (screaming): "No, no, don't operate it when it's empty! You're not supposed to use it when it's empty! Where's the Stop button, where's the Stop button?"
Rory (unerringly selecting Stop button) "OK, Mum, calm down!" (Puts headphones back on and departs, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.)
Me: "Erm, shall we go out to eat?"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pond thoughts

My colleague Mike McCarthy, Environment Editor of The Independent, is writing about ponds in today's paper - in particular, the Million Ponds Project by the Oxford-based Pond Conservation, which aims to restore the 470,000 ponds we in Britain to the million which existed a century ago. It's a lovely piece, and you can read it here.
But it also made me think about my own pond - which I fear Mike would describe as a mere "water feature" - and reminded me that I don't have any up-to-date pictures of it.
Ponds are very difficult to photograph, I find. You need a special filter thingy in order to photograph fish, and white waterlilies overexpose themselves (if you see what I mean). And I've often taken a shot I thought I would be really proud of, only to find that I've left a disgusting pile of detritus on the side that I fished out prior to fetching my camera and promptly forgot about.
Then there are the Netfloat heron deterrents that I always forget to take out, not to mention any stray leaves or rotting plants that I haven't noticed.
Part of the frustration with ponds - and much of the masochistic pleasure, I suspect - is the fact that you spend half the year hoping things will grow and the rest of the year trying to stop them doing so. Having worried that my water soldiers (Stratiotes aloides) would never become established, I now have a veritable army of the little blighters. The pygmy waterlily I was so proud of seems to have turned into a giant while my back was turned.
But my new Oase pump is working perfectly and I have hardly a trace of blanketweed thanks to regular applications of Nishikoi Goodbye Blanket Weed, a sort of turbo-charged version of barley straw. It's expensive, but it seems to work.
The biggest problem this year however is not the pond itself, but what's around it. The pond is in a very sunny position and I tend to use the ledge around it as a place to nurture succulents, grow cuttings or seedlings and dump anything that needs a bit of warmth and TLC. This means it's usually a bit of a mess. Not only that, but the fig tree beside the pond has put on a spurt of growth, overshadowing half the area of water. Luckily, summer is not a bad time to prune figs.

Can you see any water? No, neither can I. By the way, I have no idea what variety that dark-leaved canna is. I bought it last year and it didn't flower (I bought it late in the season and it was too dark and rainy and cold). But the foliage itself is nice. That's a hardy banana in the pot on the lefthand corner of the pond.

Ah, there's some water and even some fish. The plastic things that look like place mats are the Netfloat anti-heron devices. They link together with plastic ties to form a floating barrier that the heron can't poke its beak through. The green pointy things are the water soldiers, which I need to thin out. The yellow stuff is Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'. Yup, yellow leaves and pointy things, even in the pond.

Echeveria cuttings which are overdue for potting up. I like using terracotta pots, but that means I need something fairly sturdy to put them in, otherwise it's a pain if you have to move them. After shopping around in a vain attempt to find something at a reasonable price, I bought these seed trays from Harrod Horticultural.
I can't believe how much seed trays cost. And when they arrived, they were really rough and raw-looking. So I sanded them down (with an electric sander, I hasten to add: I'm not stupid, you know!) and painted them with Cuprinol Garden Shades in Seagrass. It's not a colour I would normally go for, but I thought it complemented the terracotta - and it looks terrific with the echeveria. Two sample pots were enough to do all three trays. I felt very proud of myself when I'd finished.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The annual Eeeek! moment

I am having an Eeeek! moment. And what I am eeking about most of all are my plants, of course. I have decided there are far too many dark-leaved varieties in my garden, far too many yellow-leaved varieties and far too many pointy leaves full stop. (This is what happens when one assiduously collects dark-leaved, yellow-leaved and pointy varieties.)
My kitchen is still being revamped. I am desperately trying to catch up with the laundry having been without a washing machine for a week. I have given up trying to think of healthy meals that a, don't need cooking or b, can go in the microwave and started ordering pizza instead. Everything to do with the kitchen seems to start off as a simple task and turn into a two-day nightmare. (Thank goodness my builders are patient and conscientious.)
Yet the thing that is worrying me most of all is whether I have too many red bananas in the garden. (Answer: yes, I do.)
It is something like six weeks until I open my garden for charity, under the National Gardens Scheme. So I told myself that this is not the time - no, no, definitely not - to start ripping things up and starting again.
Then I found myself in the garden this morning ... ripping things up. I thought I'd share it with you. What the hell - those of you who secretly get a little bit fed up with seeing beautiful blooms and perfect plots might get a kick out of seeing a bit of chaos.

So what have we here? Well, the first task was to resite the variegated canna that you can see alongside the bird table. That's it in its new place. Second task was to get rid of the two old logs that were either side of the frog pond (which you can't see because it's quite overgrown, which is how the frogs like it). I'd put them there ages ago when I redid this bit of the garden and planted them with periwinkle - Vinca minor 'Illumination'. But I'd got fed up with the logs - they made the area feel a bit claustrophobic. And they were rotting. So they came out.
See that dark-leaved fuchsia sitting on the grass in the foreground? It's' Thalia', not hardy but quite exotic with its orange-red flowers. You can buy them in garden centres, but they tend to be more expensive for some reason than the normal bedding fuchsias.
I have four that cost me absolutely nothing, because my neighbour Ruth rescued them from the tip the other day while she was dumping some garden rubbish.

Once you start one bit, there's a sort of domino effect round the garden. Where the red banana now is, at the centre back of the photograph, I'd had a dwarf bamboo in a pot - Pleioblastus auricomus. It was getting fed up with being in a container, and I thought it was just the thing to go by the frog pond. It's evergreen, like all bamboos, but I treat it like a herbaceous perennial and chop it back each spring to stop it looking scruffy and to ensure bright new growth.
The broad-leaved thing beside the banana is a Paulownia tomentosa. I'm going to have to move it - it doesn't like it there at all. Why did I plant it there? It seemed like a good idea at the time ...

There are some bright spots in the middle of the chaos. This pelargonium is one of the Angel varieties, I think, and was given to me by Patientgardener.

And this zantedeschia was a present from VP. It's still in a pot, but managed to survive the winter and come back bigger and even better this year.

I bought these lily bulbs at Sissinghurst when I took Gail and Frances. They'd already started to sprout when I bought them - Sissinghurst were selling them off at three packets for the price of two - and when I planted them up, they looked very sorry for themselves. But they've come good and seem to be reasonably impervious to lily beetle (apparently, Asiatic lilies don't suffer as much from this pest). Trouble is, I was in such a hurry to plant them, I forgot to take a note of the name. They look like 'Latvia' but I seem to remember them being called something else. Whatever they're called, they are a gorgeous reminder of a lovely day with two lovely people.

I haven't dared touch this border, because it's just coming into flower. In my head I call it the firework border, because the shapes of the yuccas and the agapanthus (and a cordyline, which you can't see in this picture) seem to explode like starbursts, while the yellow crocosmias are like the trails of stars falling through the sky. I think the crocosmias are 'Warburton Gold'.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The joy of a homemade garden

I recently spent a Sunday afternoon on a whirlwind tour of local gardens open under the National Gardens Scheme. Two, which I'd seen before, belonged to friends and I was keen to go along and support them.
The second two gardens I hadn't seen before. They were very different. The first had been created by a well-known garden designer, Andrew Wilson, and was in a leafy (ie smart and expensive) road just off Wimbledon Common. It was featured in the July issue of Gardens Illustrated.
The other was in a modest cul-de-sac off a main road in Wandsworth. I've featured it here on my blog because I thought it was absolutely enchanting.
There was nothing wrong with the Andrew Wilson garden. It was very smart, it had some wonderful features, such as a triangular pond with a screen of reeds, and a series of yew hedges that acted as baffles so that the garden only revealed itself as you walked round. But to me it lacked ... soul. I think the owner was very proud of it, but it didn't seem to have that sense of passion about it that you find in the garden of a plantaholic.
Pitt Crescent, on the other hand, owned by Karen Grosch, was crammed with plants, and ideas, and places to sit and relax and quirky objects that made you smile, such as the old railway station sign above.

Karen is a model-maker so her background is theatre design. It goes without saying that she has a great eye for form and colour and perspective. But to me the most impressive thing about her garden (apart from the plants) was its sense of peace and serenity - astonishing, given that it was next door to a council block and backed on to the District Line.

An old water tank is now home to frogs and a waterlily. Karen thinks the frogs keep the slugs and snails off the hostas.

I loved this combination of dark-leaved Begonia semperflorens with the painted fern, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum. Neither of these are plants I particularly like, but I was converted on the spot and rushed home and bought some begonias for myself.

I always think of this blue-grey-green colour as being typically French. It works amazingly well in any garden, I think.

The view looking back towards the house.

Details such as this decorative metalwork make wonderful talking points ...

... and even the utilitarian areas look attractive, such as this shelf of clay pots.

Last but not least, Karen's front garden.

101 Pitt Crescent, London SW19 8HR is open for the National Gardens Scheme on the first Sunday in June. To read more about it, go to

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The 'I got one of these' guide to the Hampton Court Show

They say that taking up gardening is a sign of encroaching middle age. So what does an increasing interest in garden tools signify? Senility? Too many male hormones?
I think I've probably bored you all before about the pleasure of using tools that are well-made as opposed to using things that are cheap. So it will come as no surprise that the purchase that excited me most yesterday was my new hose. Sad, isn't it?
I should explain that this is no ordinary hose. Well, actually, it is an ordinary hose, but it's made by a Dutch company called De Wiltfang who were exhibiting in the UK for the first time in the Gardens Illustrated pavilion. It comes already supplied with brass tap fittings, it's a tasteful dark green and it's absolutely beautiful.
I've been trying to persuade myself to buy a new hose for seven years. I inherited my current one from the previous owners and it drives me mad. You only have to look at it and it kinks. (And it very often kinks when you're not looking at it.) But I'd go to the garden centre, look at the price tags on the hoses and instantly find something more interesting to spend the money on.
This time, though, I was confronted with the sales technique of the charming Annetje de Jong. She pointed out, very sensibly, that the price of the hose was less than the price of a pair of new shoes and would last far, far longer. Sold!

The purchases in full. On the left are Heuchera 'Electra' from Heucheraholics. Next to them is Lilium formosanum var. pricei, to which I am slightly addicted, thanks to Martyn Cox (see below). The monster in the trolley is a Canna 'Pretoria' from Hart Canna who were exhibiting in the Plant Heritage marquee.
The trolley is one of those box things on wheels that I had to buy in order to get everything back to the car. Thank goodness I was with VP. She may not have wheels but she's very good at giving moral support.
On top of the hose is a lance with a spray attachment for watering, also from De Wiltfang. It's such a beautiful object, I'm tempted to hang it on the wall instead. And the long copper thing is a De Wiltfang border spray, with a ground spike. You connect the hose to the attachment at the base, just above the spike, then plonk it in the ground in the middle of a thirsty border. Because it's high, the water rains down on the plants and you can adjust the spray from a sort of heavy downpour to more of a misting effect.

I should add that just about everything I bought at the show received the seal of disapproval from James Alexander-Sinclair. He first spotted me with my trolley, and gave me the sort of look that is normally reserved for an extrovert porn star trying to gain entry to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Admittedly, trolleys are annoying - they make a hell of a racket on the metal walkways and I managed to trip James Wong up with it - but they are useful.
The next time I saw him I had the trolley and the variegated canna. This time I got a look that would have punctured the porn star's surgically enhanced embonpoint. (James HATES variegated cannas.)
The last time I ran into him, I was about to buy these mushrooms (above). Why??? asked James. Because I like them, and that's what matters.

James doesn't know about the L. formosanum but he'd probably hate that too, because it's a dwarf lily. I'm normally not keen on dwarf lilies myself, but instead of looking squat and stunted, this one has rather lovely, delicate dark green foliage. The flowers are normal size and have a dramatic maroon stripe on the reverse.
They look fantastic with dark-leaved plants. I have them planted up with dark-leaved, white-flowered Begonia semperflorens and Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' (black lily turf) but I think they'd look even better with dark heucheras.
I first saw L. formosanum in Martyn Cox's book, Big Gardens in Small Spaces which I think is a really good buy if you have a small urban garden and/or like to experiment with something a bit different. I like Martyn's discursive writing style - it's a bit like being taken on a tour of his garden in person - but it's also a good book to dip into for ideas. And as far as I know, Martyn has nothing against trolleys.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The 'I want one of those' guide to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

Everyone loves the Hampton Court show. It's as if some glorious garden party married a pretty village fete and produced one of the most gorgeous flower shows in the world.
The setting helps, of course - the Tudor palace, the 17th-century privy garden, the Christopher Wren South Front, the great canal known as the Long Water, which runs right through the show.
Many gardeners prefer it to Chelsea because - as everyone will tell you - it's possible to buy plants at Hampton Court. Not only do the exhibitors sell plants but among the many, many retail stalls, there are nurseries of every description selling everything from acers to zantedeschias.
It's also a great place to buy garden bygones, sculptures, pots, greenhouses, gazebos and garden furniture of every conceivable kind.
What people won't tell you is that it is very easy to part with serious amounts of money very, very fast. I even found myself lusting after this cute watering can handbag and accosting the very elegant lady who was carrying it in order to take a picture. She didn't seem to mind, and told me it came from Octopus handbags.
Here, in no particular order, are the things that made my I Want One of Those list:

A garden shed planted up with cottage-style flowers, as seen in Mary Payne and Jon Wheatley's Market Garden. (Anyone remember the fabulous 1950s Daily Mail garden at Hampton Court a few years ago? Mary had a hand in that too.)

A vegetable orchestra, as seen on the Tyrrells Potato Chips stand, featuring students from the Royal Academy of Music on instruments ranging from a carrot recorder and a pumpkin drum, to a cucumber trumpet complete with red pepper mute.

Yet more Market Garden gorgeousness from Mary Payne and Jon Wheatley. It was part of an even bigger exhibit called Home Grown which featured British growers.

A field of sunflowers from Fields of Gold, the commercial agriculture section of the Home Grown exhibit by Gillian van der Meer.

An orchard with ducks and chickens (Market Garden again)

A cutting garden from, yes, you guessed, the Market Garden. I'm sorry, it just blew me away. It was far and away the best thing in the show.

A conceptual garden that makes you think. This is Journey to Awakening, by Makoto Tanaka. The circular pond symbolises the inner mind, while the slats depict the 108 earthly desires that Buddhists believe cause human suffering. Words representing these failings (arrogance, doubt, anger and so on) are hung upside down on the outside of the slats - you can only read them when they are reflected in the water.

This is the Pansy Project Garden. If Journey to Awakening is about finding inner harmony, the Pansy Project is about going out into the streets and making a protest. Artist Paul Harfleet has gone round Britain planting a pansy at sites of homophobic abuse.

A Dutch breakfast. This is the Warmenhoven nursery crew sitting down to a well-deserved brunch after setting up their exhibit of alliums and hippeastrums. They'd brought everything with them from the Netherlands (including the home-made jam).

A teddy bears' picnic. This was part of the display of eremurus on the Jacques Amand stand. What have teddy bears to do with eremurus? Haven't a clue. But they were rather sweet.

Afternoon tea, with proper china and a real tablecloth.

A tree lily or three.

So what did I buy? Ah, well, you'll have to wait until my next post to see ...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lemon geraniums

I'm rather allergic to "new" colours for flowers. I can't understand, for example, why anyone would want a blue rose - they always look to me as if they've been left in the freezer overnight. I'm not crazy either about those daffodils with peach-coloured centres. To me, they look as if they've been left out in the rain.
So when I first heard about the new pelargoniums with yellow flowers, I mentally rolled my eyes and assigned them to my private list of Growers' Abominations.
Then I saw them for sale at Wisley, massed together on a stand, and fell in love. For a start, they are not bright yellow but a soft pale primrose, so they look great against dark-leaved plants (of which I have many). They have that ability, like white flowers, to seem to glow at twilight.
I'm not sure what variety mine are - most of the yellow pelargoniums sold in this country seem to be called 'Guernsey Flair', but I seem to remember mine were called something different.
In surfing around the internet trying to remember what they were called, I was amused to see that lots of people complained that these geraniums weren't bright yellow, having been persuaded into buying them by lurid-coloured photographs in catalogues. I think the pale primrose is very pretty, set off by tiny dark-red stamens (well, antlers to be precise). At first I thought it was just the stamens that supplied the colour, but looking very closely, I saw that there were tiny maroon flecks on the petals themselves, like fairy eyeliner.
The leaves aren't typical of your average bedding pelargonium. They're quite a light, bright green, with absolutely no zonal markings, and they're slightly hairy. They're more like a scented geranium such as 'Attar of Rose' or 'Clorinda'. If you rub the leaves really hard, they even have a faint scented-geranium smell.
While on the internet I found lots of people complaining that they didn't flower. Mine seem fine, although they're not exactly a mass of blooms, and the flowers - in that irritating manner of some pelargoniums - seem to spend far longer fading than they do in full bloom. Ruthless dead-heading the minute they start to fade seems to be the answer.
I found it really difficult to discover how this pelargonium was bred, apart from one vague reference to Pelargonium urbanum. I searched my friend Graham Rice's blog as he is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to new plants, but couldn't find a post on it. Graham, if you're reading this, enlighten us please!