Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Good intentions and bad-tempered gardeners

OK, that's enough frivolity and garden shopping and barbecues and so on. It's time to think, really think, about the garden. Any garden, come to that.
I've been reading Anne Wareham's new book,
The Bad-Tempered Gardener, which is published on 5 May. It's quite eclectic - there are chapters on snowdrops and alchemilla mollis, and deadheading and visitors, as well as deeply personal accounts of why she created Veddw, her garden, in the way she did.
I would say the linking theme is passion - passion for Veddw, passion for her reflecting pool, for plants such as the
Stipa tenuissima on her terrace, for ways of thinking, for ways of doing things, for ways of not doing things.
There's a sort of searing honesty about it that isn't always comfortable to read. There's a great sense of Anne's vision of herself as an outsider; how she is often bewildered or puzzled by gardens; what she calls the dishonesty of the gardening world, and her fears for the future - how will she cope with Veddw in years to come?
I have to declare a bias here: I like Anne, because she makes me think. I don't always agree with her (a virtual chasm yawns between us on the subject of lawn edging, for example) but I like the way she nudges - no, make that jolly well shoves - my brain into gear. She is the human equivalent of the sort of strong cocktail - a White Lady, perhaps - that makes you gasp in shock, but feel invigorated afterwards.
Take, for instance, her views on buying plants. "The nursery habit is at the bottom of the absymal British garden. That and plant sales at NGS garden openings. All those little specials, all needing to be squeezed in somewhere in an already over-stuffed garden."
Anne prefers repetition - "I can almost always think of a further use for a plant that is good and does well with me" - which she says adds to a garden's unity and integrity, but warns that this is not a common view in British gardening.
I think this is both true and not true. I personally feel nervous about having too much of one thing in my garden - too many hostas or libertia, not enough flowers - so I recognise that pressure to diversify and how difficult it is to resist it.
On the other hand, I know lots of gardeners - mainly those with a "nursery habit", it must be said - who feel that, ideally, their gardens could do with being de-spotified. So they recognise the aesthetic pitfalls that await the gardener/collector even if they don't really do anything about it. And I'm as susceptible as the next person to an impulse buy at a nursery or show.
Anne's also very scathing about the National Gardens Scheme, for a variety of reasons, but in the main because, she says, they help perpetuate an uncritical fantasy view of gardens. As the owner of a Yellow Book garden, this made me wince. And yet, and yet ... NGS gardens do vary in quality, it's true, and it's also true that no one is ever rude about them, because they open for charity. Is this good or bad? At least we ought to think about it.
There are far more bits of this book that make me nod in agreement than make me throw it down in frustration. The chapter headed: "I hate gardening" made me laugh out loud. (The bit about lawn edging made me quite cross, but I was in the bath at the time, so thought better of chucking it in the water.)
I was rather amazed to find that I share some of Anne's enthusiasms and dislikes. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with hellebores. I have a bit of a weakness for succulents. I like hostas and Erigeron karvinskianus 'Profusion' and crocosmia, and I can quite see that one could almost fall in love, Narcissus-like, with a reflecting pool like the one at Veddw.
So, criticisms. Not enough pictures. Or maybe not big enough pictures. It's not that I want a coffee table book, with huge close-ups and minimal captions, but Anne is married to a very good photographer, and I would have liked to have seen more of Veddw. It's the sort of garden where structure, texture, colour, form cry out for closer analysis. I'm guessing printing costs were an issue.
The proof reading could have been a bit sharper - there were quite a few typos. (I hope Anne didn't have to do all the proof-reading herself - you can never spot your own literals.)
These aside, I have enjoyed the process of reading this book, of being constantly challenged and made to stop and think.
The title is a reference to Anne's reputation as a critic, but it is also a jocular nod to Christopher Lloyd's The Well-Tempered Garden, which is itself a play on The Well-Tempered Clavier, the title of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues.
Bach composed these in every major and minor key to show off the tuning of the newly invented piano. They have become required repertoire for any pianist who takes themselves even the least bit seriously; Daniel Barenboim says he likes to play at least one every day.
It would be nice to think that Anne's book might become required reading in the relatively new field of garden criticism.

Monday, April 25, 2011

After the party garden

... and this is what the garden looked like after my daughter had her friends round for a birthday barbecue.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Thunderstorm garden

It's been a record-breaking April here in London - the warmest since records began, according to the Met Office. Driving home from work yesterday evening, the car was registering 25C (77F).
This afternoon, thankfully, we had a thunderstorm, which was greeted with huge relief by me (thinking of my plants) and apprehension on the part of my daughter (thinking of her birthday barbecue tomorrow).
I love the light in the garden when there's a storm. Everything takes on a kind of intensity. I even love the sound of thunder. It's like a one-act drama without any actors.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Colour me beautiful

I'm useless with colour. I'm not one of those people who can unerringly point to the hue that is just right for the living room/bedroom/garden furniture. If I'm having any remodelling done, I ask the decorator, Ralph, to choose a colour. I'm serious - he has good taste, and it saves me hours of dithering over paint charts.
I know lots of gardeners who are good with colour - who paint their trellis, their shed or their front door just the right shade of greige, or sea-blue, or dark green. Oregon gardener Grace Peterson has a header picture on her blog that includes a cherry-red trellis which looks gorgeous. I hanker after colour too - but I'm too much of a scaredy cat to commit myself with a brush. The most I've ever done is paint a couple of seed trays (below) - and let's face it, that's hardly Sistine Chapel level.

Indeed, merely painting the seeds trays involved hours of dithering over the Cuprinol Garden Shades range in the local DIY store. The colour is Seagrass, and I can't remember why I chose it. I was initially drawn to Sunflower, but thought it might look like raw yellow wood, rather than yellow paint. This also put me off using Terracotta, Berry and Deep Russet, as I thought it would end up looking New Fence colour.
I did think of mixing colours - Country Cream with Sunflower, to get a pale creamy yellow - but chickened out. I thought it might look a bit Country Living as opposed to Urban Jungle.
I don't like blue, so that ruled out Barleywood, Iris and Forget Me Not. And I'm not really a Lavender person, though I can see it might look very pretty in some gardens.
So what do YOU think? If I were to paint the bird table below, which I have often thought of doing, what shade should it be? Should I go back to Sunflower? Or should it be Seagrass, like the seed trays? And whatever colour I paint it, should I paint my old garden bench to match? I'd like something that looked vaguely Oriental, or Caribbean, rather than shabby chic. Or should I just leave it?
Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A paradise for plantaholics

Open day at Crocus, who must by now be the UK's biggest online nursery. They have a real nursery, as well as a virtual one, just outside Windlesham in Surrey, and today they flung open their polytunnel doors to the general public.
Crocus also supplies many of the Chelsea show gardens, and were offering tours so you could see what plants were being grown. My neighbour Ruth and I had fully intended to go on one of these tours, but from the moment we arrived, we were far too interested in shopping for ourselves than to go and look at other people's choices.

It was the first time either of us had been to a Crocus open day, and we were very impressed by the organisation. When you arrive, you are given an explanatory leaflet with a guide to the prices, and a couple of strips of stickers with your number on it.
As you go round the nursery, you pick up any plants you want, put a sticker on them and leave them in the aisle, where they are picked up by helpers. These are then loaded onto trailers and taken back to the central payment point, where your collection of plants is held under your number until you want to pay.
It sounds a bit haphazard, but it works - it means that you don't have to carry the plants round with you, and there isn't a traffic jam of garden centre trolleys everywhere. Brilliant.
If I had to make any criticism at all, it would be that it was quite difficult to find someone who knew about the plants. Most of what I assume were temporary staff brought in for the day seemed to be Polish and spoke little English. However, they were so eager to help, and so charming, that it seems churlish even to mention this.
In any case, there were loads of knowledgeable customers around. The only plant I drew a complete blank on was Asphodeline liburnica. No one seemed to have heard of it, but its feathery stems were so extraordinary, that this didn't stop anyone buying it.

Areas that were out of bounds for various reasons - customer orders, Chelsea plants etc - were clearly marked.

The quality of the plants was fantastic, as was the range available. The Crocus website has a "wish list" feature which, in my case, always runs to at least a dozen plants. Ruth, who is more organised than me, had actually printed out her wish list and brought it with her. How many times have you visited a nursery or garden centre only to find that they haven't got what you want? At Crocus, I got everything.

One of the tractor-trailers bears its load back to the central payment point, below. Someone then totted up your total - so you didn't have to unload and load up all the plants again - then gave you a slip of paper to take to the till.

The prices, by London standards, were amazing. A typical 2-litre perennial, normally something like £7.99 or £8.99 or even more in a London garden centre, cost £5. I bought something like 15 plants for £80, which included a Trachelospermum jasminoides, on special offer at £12.50 (usual price £24.99). Ruth bought a tangerine and a lemon tree, which were on special offer at £20 each. They were fantastic plants, too - bushy and glossy and green.
Ruth and I arrived at about 11am and by the time we left, it was 2.15pm. We were exhausted but very happy - we both agreed it was one of the best day's plant shopping we'd ever had. Crocus are having three more open days, and you can get the details here. It's well worth a trip.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A day at Loseley with Zoe

Loseley Park is an Elizabethan (1562) manor house just south of Guildford, near Godalming, and about 45 minutes drive from me. It's on the edge of the North Downs, where the air is clear and sweet and smells of grass and trees.
The walled gardens are not particularly well-known by great English garden standards, but they are definitely worth a visit. They are a blend of formal yew hedges and cottage garden sprawl that is traditionally English and very restful.
Nothing is staked within an inch of its life as in more formal gardens - plants are allowed to seed around. The herb garden in particular is beautiful at this time of the year, with huge drifts of sweet cicely, woodruff and the bright new foliage of angelica.
The picture above shows the rose garden - astonishingly green at this time of the year, and rather attractive, in a stark sort of way. Below, the huge lime-yellow heads of Euphorbia characias subs. wulfenii act as pointers to the spring garden, where forget-me-nots, tulips and wallflowers run amok beneath pleached fruit trees.

I didn't notice the patterns on the bark of the fruit trees until I uploaded the photographs. But I loved the combination of the brilliant cherry red tulips and the ornamental rhubarb.

I'd gone to Loseley to meet Zoë, and to have a mooch around their spring garden show. This was held in the walled gardens themselves, which was a lovely setting. The stalls included plants, garden bygones, secondhand tools and furniture, but I have to confess that we spent most of our time sitting chatting.
I'd turned up with no cash, which I thought would stop me buying stuff. This ploy did not work. I bought two all-weather rattan garden chairs on my credit card (well, I had to have that to buy petrol), and Zoë lent me £14 to buy a secondhand half-moon lawn edger and a broom.
Memo to self: if you want to save money, do not go to garden shows with fellow bloggers. I'm kidding, of course - what could be nicer than to go to garden shows with fellow bloggers?
Zoë was very taken with a vintage chicken feeder (read her blog and you'll see why) and the lady on the stall was very impressed that she knew a, what it was and b, how it worked. So was I.
I never thought I'd be the sort of person who would get enthusiastic about old garden tools. When I was a child, everything in our garden shed was either rusting or broken. We had an enormous garden roller that weighed a ton and shrieked like some mythical creature if you tried to move it. My idea of the perfect garden tool has always been something that gleams and cleans easily - preferably involving stainless steel and bright coloured plastic, so I can see where I've left it.
However, there is something very nice about a spade or a hoe that someone has lovingly polished and restored. Worn smooth with years of use, the wooden handle on my half-moon edger seems to fall naturally into the hand in a comfortable position. The broom is new, but just the right size. Unlike my existing yard broom, which is huge and heavy, the head is small and neat but with stiff enough bristles to brush up dried mud and damp compost.
If you want to visit Loseley, the best time is June, when the rose garden and the organic vegetable garden are at their best. They're also having a Grow Your Own show on Sunday and Monday 1 and 2 May.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Danger: woman at work

Last time I posted about the garden, I mentioned that I was rejigging this particular bit, and maybe putting in a terracotta pot as a focal point. Well, the pot's there, but I haven't done much else.
Life being what it is, I went down with a cold in the middle of last week, so two glorious days of sunshine this weekend - a golden opportunity to get on with some gardening - has been somewhat disrupted by endless sniffling and coughing.
I've managed to get quite a lot done, but Nature has managed even more - everything seems to be racing ahead. These hostas were scarcely showing their noses above the soil a couple of weeks ago - now they're burgeoning fast.

It feels more like June than April, so it is a bit disconcerting to look around the garden and find that there are no bananas, or cannas, or eucomis in place yet. They're still sitting in the garage, or in the glasshouse at the nursery.
The great thing about blogging is that you have a good excuse to straighten your aching back and head inside to get the camera. The bad thing about blogging is that you then go round the garden with the camera and notice all the untidy bits. So you put down the camera and start deadheading or whatever.
I had this stupid fantasy that I might get a minute to sit in the sun and read a gardening magazine.

Instead, I put up these wall units which you can just see at the back of the picture. They're from Ikea. Well, at least it was furniture-related, even if I didn't get to sit down.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A post about Pushkin

Some of you already know that my cat, Pushkin, has been through a bit of a bad time recently. He has injured his back, and this has been a huge worry. At one point, we thought we might have to have him put down, but I'm hoping that won't prove to be the case. Apart from his fracture, he's a very healthy cat and the children and I find the thought of life without him very sad indeed.
Apparently, he has a couple of fused vertebrae in his back. Beneath this area is a bony deposit, and it is this deposit that has fractured. This in itself wouldn't be a problem, but a bit of the bone has broken off and is causing him discomfort.
Pushkin has been to see a specialist orthopaedic vet who says that this bone may be pressing on nerves and affecting his back legs. We're currently waiting to take him for an MRI scan which will show what impact this is having on the spinal column. It could be just a case of simply removing the bit of bone in an operation, but we don't know until he has the scan.
I thought I'd write about this because at various points, we almost gave up on Pushkin - but thanks to the internet, we didn't. If anyone else is unlucky enough to go through this sort of distressing experience, I hope this will be of help.
When Pushkin first injured himself, he went missing and we eventually found him cowering in the garden. He flinched away from us when we tried to pick him up and wouldn't even miaow. He then went missing again, which meant a delay of a few days before we could get him to the vet. During this time, we were convinced we would never see him again.
However, I remembered that Yolanda at Bliss had blogged about losing her cat Vita. I read her account of how they hunted for Vita for weeks and it gave me hope that I might find Pushkin.
I also found a blog called
Pet Detective which doesn't seem to be active any more, but which has some invaluable advice for cat owners.
First, when your cat is ill or injured, he doesn't "go off to die" as many people, including me, tend to think. It is his natural instinct to hide, and not to make a sound, so as not to attract the attention of predators when he is not in a fit state to fight them off.
Second, he really will hide - yes, even from you, his loving owner. It's not enough to leaflet neighbours - you have to get down on your hands and knees and crawl around their garden. Even when we got Pushkin safely back in the house, he still managed to tuck himself away in corners and crevices.
On one occasion, I left him shut in the study while I answered the door and when I came back he was gone. I thought I was going mad! In the end, we discovered he'd tucked himself into a cupboard full of DVDs. (And this with a bad back.)
This instinct is called "hiding in silence" and while it might be useful for avoiding predators, it is the worst thing a domestic cat can do. While he's hiding, he's not eating, or drinking, or receiving medical attention, which means that his condition will deteriorate much more quickly.
At the moment, Pushkin is doing quite well. He's eating loads and his back legs seem to be working, after a fashion, though they get a bit tangled up if he tries to turn round too fast. I'm praying that the vet will be able to sort him out. He's far too lovable to lose!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sssh, I'm re-reading my garden

I was at parents' evening at my daughter's school the other day, and listening to her English teacher talking about re-reading the set text - in this case, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He was saying that the more one studies a book, the more you find in it the second, third, or twelfth time round.
I am a great re-reader of books. I have what I call "flu books" - novels that I re-read when I'm feeling a bit under the weather. These include all of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Arnim's The Enchanted April, E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia series and Stella Gibbons' Nightingale Wood.
This last was recently republished in paperback, I'm delighted to say, and more will be available in August. I'm a huge fan of Stella Gibbons, who wrote dozens of novels, hardly any of which have been in print for years.
As well as falling with delight upon favourite phrases, it's amazing how often you notice something new, even in a book that is dog-eared with years of use. As one's experience of life increases, so does one's insight and perspective, I suppose.
The same goes for gardening books. The more years I spend gardening, the more I find that I see certain chapters in a new light. Something I may have flicked over four or five years ago now holds my attention. It's like learning a language: suddenly, all those unfamiliar phrases make sense.
This also helps me re-read my garden. I think we all have a corner, a bed or a problem patch that somehow, whatever we do, just refuses to come right. I've got a bit on the right-hand side of my garden that I've never really got to work. I've looked at it, and looked at it, and never until now had the courage to rip it apart and start again.
One day a couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through some books on Oriental and exotic garden design and wishing I had a rare Chinese ceramic shrine like the one in the picture. Then it struck me (the realisation, not the ceramic shrine) - I like the look of something that's motionless and monolithic amongst the movement and jumble of leaves and flowers and bees and whatever else is rustling in the undergrowth. That's what drew me to the picture.
Perhaps this explains why there are so many empty pots (focal points, as I like to think of them) in my garden. Perhaps what I needed was one more, in the middle of this particular bed...
I'll let you know if it works or not.

The bit of border in question, in high summer last year.