Sunday, July 31, 2011

Emergency mini makeover

It's funny how much a holiday can really re-energise you, particularly if you have been looking at other people's gardens. I returned from Seattle (and yes, I will carry on with blogging about that) to discover that I couldn't stand the sight of my poxy box a moment longer.
Friends had suggested leaving it until after the garden opening, on the basis that visitors like to see that a garden isn't perfect. However, it seemed to me a bit unfair to inflict such an eyesore on the paying public. I know how hypercritical I (privately) am when I visit gardens. I wouldn't be too impressed if I saw this in someone else's garden.

I didn't think the box had blight, but it had something. And since I have other box plants in the garden which, so far (touch boxwood), seem to be completely healthy, I decided I needed to find out what was bugging my box asap.
Three things were on my mind. First: could whatever was attacking the box live in the soil? Would I be able to replant box in the same place?
Second: how easy would it be to remove the box? Would it be a huge and difficult job?
Third: what would the soil be like underneath it? It grows in a space in the middle of the paving - I had visions of finding nothing but hardcore where there should be earth.
I live close enough to the RHS garden at Wisley to be able to drop in and use their advisory service. It's free to any member of the Royal Horticultural Society and you can also send samples to them for analysis in the post (for full details of the service, go here.)
I'd hardly got my sorry sample out of my bag before the horticultural advisor had nailed the diagnosis. "It's mussel scale," she said. "But let's have a look under the microscope and you can see what's going on." Yuck. There on the twig was what looked like a miniature mussel bed.
So what to do? The horticultural advisor said mussel scale was a slow-moving pest, but a really strong systemic insecticide was required to get rid of it, and it would probably need several applications.
I said I didn't want to use insecticide. I would rather dig the plants up and get rid of them, but first I needed to know whether mussel scale could survive in the soil and affect subsequent plants. Fair enough, said the advisor, and she called an entomologist colleague for further advice. He said that the mussel scale would not survive in the soil. However, he recommended leaving the site to overwinter before replanting with box, just to be on the same side.
I decided that I would dig up the box. I would possibly replant with box next spring, but not so much box - maybe three balls instead of six, interplanted with grasses, a la Diarmuid Gavin at Chelsea this year. Perhaps.
I finally got around to the digging out bit this afternoon. (4pm is my optimum time for projects in the garden, for some reason. Possibly because I need to be fortified by a cup of tea.) I don't think it's an exaggeration to say I have spent more time writing this post than I did digging out the box plants. To my surprise and delight, they came out really easily - mainly because they were in nice, reasonably deep soil. Hurray!




So what to plant? I nipped round to the garden centre. First thing I bought was a wheeled pot stand to put my cannas on. I'd been meaning to do that for years. Then I got some topsoil and manure to top up the soil level.
I decided that I didn't want anything too expensive in case I ripped it out next spring to make way for the box. So that ruled out anything exotic, but on the other hand, I wanted something that would fit with the rest of the garden. It also had to go with the cannas, which are 'Pretoria', and have bright orange flowers and striking green and yellow-striped leaves.

In the end, I decided on some crocosmia - this is 'Columbus', which I have already, and which seemed an appropriate choice for someone who likes visiting America.
I also chose some grasses (Carex testacea, a name which for some schoolgirlish reason always makes me want to giggle, and Carex oshimensis 'Evergold') and a purple-leaved sedum called 'Rainbow Xenox', which is supposed to change colour from yellow through to bronze. Hmm. I'll be amazed if they're anything other than dirty pink. I liked the foliage, though - contrasting with the grasses, it reminded me of the stone cairns we saw at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens in Seattle.
I love, love, love C. 'Evergold'. It is the most useful plant - it's quite drought-tolerant, it's evergreen and it looks like patches of sunlight. It does well in a pot, and I find it works very well when it comes to adding texture or softening edges - it's like adding a fur collar to a winter coat.
I'm going to dress the bed with pebbles and cobbles, but since I've just hoiked six 3ft box balls out of it, I'll let it settle for a couple of weeks and top it up again before I do.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Seattle is sunny...

Day one of the fling, and we were up bright and early to board the bus to see our first Seattle gardens. Here are Frances, Gail, Elizabeth and Cindy

And here's Lorene telling us all to siddown and SHUDDUP. (Just kidding. She was really asking if everyone had been to the bathroom.) Thanks, Lorene, for helping to organise a fantastic fling.
The first two gardens we visited were neighbours in NW 116th Street, on the side of a hill. If you craned your neck and peered through the trees, you could see a sliver of ocean in the distance.
Both had big front gardens, and back gardens on different levels. Suzette and Jim Birrell's garden was a plantaholics' paradise, crammed with clematis, geraniums, roses, and a vegetable patch lit up by the rainbow colours of brilliant chard stems. Shelagh Tucker's front garden was inspired by Beth Chatto's dry garden, with grasses and drought-tolerant plants. Her back garden was designed as a series of interlinking spaces, each with its own character, and each offering different vistas of the garden.
Lots of the Flingers asked me if I thought the gardens seemed very English in character. It was a question I found myself pondering throughout the weekend. What is it - beyond the stereotypes - that gives a garden a national characteristic?

Although I was familiar with most of the plants in the Birrell garden (the first plant I saw, pictured above, was Geranium 'Blue Sunrise', which I have in my garden at home), it didn't look to me like a typical English garden. Perhaps it was the tall conifers that surrounded it. In the UK we usually grow conifers either as hedging or as specimen trees. They don't tend to be the background trees in the landscape beyond the garden. (Did you know that only three conifers - yew, juniper and Scots pine - are regarded as native to Britain? America has something like 200.)

Perhaps it was the Adirondack chairs, set invitingly at the rear of a sunny lawn.

Here's Kylee, taking pictures in the front garden.

I loved the plant combinations, such as this cotinus, or smoke bush, with alstroemeria.

I was very envious of this Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildiana', or gloriosa lily

Here's the back of Barbara, a view with which I was to become familiar! Barbara, it was so lovely to meet you face to face (when you weren't taking photographs, that is).

Why don't my zantedeschia look like this?

I went to all the trouble of asking the name of this gorgeous clematis, only to forget it before I had time to write it down. A sign of impending senility, no doubt.
Shelagh Tucker's garden had more of an English feel about it, although at first glance, with its clapboard house and Adirondack chairs in the front garden, it looks typically American.

I think it was the use of the formal terrace, the thyme planted in between the paving stones, the sense of enclosure created by the use of the gate and the "rooms".

I liked the simplicity of the pond, and the grasses set in the gravel courtyard.

A secluded fountain in another, shady courtyard filled with hostas and ferns.

I loved the quirky cast-iron mat with its pattern of frogs ...

... and the way that the garden was designed to offer a vista from every angle. It came as no surprise to learn that Shelagh was not only from England, but also a painter.
It was so kind of Suzette and Jim, and Shelagh, to let us invade their gardens and take pictures. Shelagh also provided cold drinks and pastries to revive us - a gesture repeated by other gardeners who were hosting us on the tour. Standing beneath the blue sky, feeling the warmth of the sun on my bare arms, and with an iced tea in one hand and a palmier in the other, I felt very glad that I'd decided to come to Seattle.

Another view of Shelagh Tucker's front garden, frothing with Stipa tenuissima, Allium sphaerocephalon and Lychnis coronaria

Another view of the back garden ...

... and roses against the grey paint of the house. I loved this combination of colours.

Reluctantly, we gently untwined ourselves from the two gardens and set off for lunch at the Dunn Gardens, designed by Olmsted Brothers, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park and designated by some as the Father of American Landscape Architecture (the other claimant to that crown is Andrew Jackson Downing, who designed the grounds of the White House and the Smithsonian Institution).
The sunny lawn was a great place for a picnic, which was followed by a tour of the grounds. I was astonished to see Cornus florida and rhododendrons still in flower at what was nearly the end of July.
As an ignorant Brit, I'd never heard of Olmsted, pere or fils. Reading up on Frederick Law Olmsted's theories of landscape design, I was interested to see that he believed in cherishing "the genius of a place" (retaining its natural essential character, if you like) and in "democratising nature" - providing open, beautiful spaces for the working man and woman to enjoy.
It's a philosophy that is in sympathy with the Arts and Crafts movement. Along with William Morris, roughly a contemporary, Olmsted shared the view that utility should never be subordinate to ornament - as Morris put it: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

However, Olmsted also believed that the hand of the artist should not be too apparent in landscape design and I think this is where I would stop nodding in agreement with him. I like structure, and formality, and a sense that there is a logical purpose behind any design. I found The Dunn Gardens, erm, parklike. It was a very pleasant park, with mature trees, interesting plants and meandering paths, but it didn't really blow me away.
The next stop on the tour was the Miller Horticultural Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture. This is a fantastic resource for gardeners, with not only books, but an advice line, garden tours and plant sales. The Center is also home to the Soest Garden, which is used to examine how plants grow under different conditions. This is how Barbara looked in sunny Seattle conditions.

I was, quite frankly, exhausted by this stage, so I wandered back to the hotel to put my feet up for five minutes before the evening event at the Ravenna Gardens nursery in the shopping mall next door to the hotel.

Ravenna Gardens is as gorgeous inside as it is outside. I defy any gardener to go in there and not come out with a purchase. I'd almost decided I was too tired to go, but perked up after a glass of wine and a goodie bag.

Cocktails! Is there any other way to start a meal? Here are Robin and Layanee at dinner on the first evening.

Seattle is cool...

I arrived in Seattle on a sunny afternoon, looking down from the plane at a landscape of blue sea and green trees, punctuated by mountains. After nine and a half hours in a 747, I felt the need for a walk, so after checking into the hotel, I wandered along to the shopping mall a couple of blocks away.
The first thing I saw was an Anthropologie store, and the first thing I heard was a live band playing. Everywhere I looked, people wandered in the evening sunshine with smiles on their faces. Seattle was cool, I decided.
The following day, Thursday, bloggers began to drift into town, looking forward to the Seattle fling. I know of no pleasure greater than renewing old friendships, unless it is making new ones. It was such a thrill to see Gail again, and to meet Carol and Robin for the first time.

Here are some more of the group enjoying an al fresco bowl of minestrone (and a cocktail or two) that evening. We were amused to see that the restaurant provided red fleece blankets for its customers if you wanted to sit outside. Yes, this was Seattle - and it was cool!
From left, Leslie, Kathy, Dee, Mary Ann, Carol and Gail.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Seattle, here I come

I'm off to Seattle, to meet all sorts of fascinating, lovely people. Luigi is in charge of the blog while I'm away.

(... and just in case you're wondering, my son is in charge of Luigi.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Time to reveal the "reveal"

Actually, this is probably going to turn out to be a big anticlimax. I like to work really fast in the garden when I'm doing a new project, but the weather here has been so bad I've only been able to finish reshaping in the lawn in slow and laborious steps, rushing out in between downpours.
But here it is, a nice, neat zig-zag instead of a rather indeterminate curve.
I'm very happy with it. What's interesting is that now I have a shape I'm happy with, I feel I want to take things away, rather than clutter it up. I guess that tells me I'm a great one for hiding problems rather than solving them.

You may remember that I started this by creating a little peninsula around one of my cordylines, below, which for various tedious reasons was growing in the middle of the lawn.

I think I now need a bench in the far right-hand side. But let's not go there right now, because I don't have time for any more makeovers. Shame, because this is a good time to buy garden furniture at reduced prices in the sales...

Here's a day lily, 'El Desperado'. My day lilies aren't really in the right place, so they flower in a rather sulky, well-OK-if-I-really-have-to sort of way. When they do, however, they look spectacular.

I love this combination of colours - created here with a coleus (OK, OK, solenostemon, but coleus is a darned sight easier to write) and Euphorbia characias wulfenii. The coleus is 'Trusty Rusty'. Here it is again with a yellow-leaved maple.

I'm much happier with this bed too (For mini-makeover earlier in the year, see here). I used to have green and yellow striped cannas here, with the yellow crocosmia and agapanthus and Verbena bonariensis. The red-leaved cannas (these are 'Durban') are so much more dramatic.
I was inspired to use this combination after seeing a picture of a garden with yuccas and red-leaved cannas. Sadly, I can't remember whose it was, but thank you very much!
Next to them, but out of shot, is a buddleia. I thought I'd bought 'Nanho Blue' but it turned out more like 'Black Knight' - a really rich purple. It looks wonderful with the dahlias, which are 'David Howard'.
Could I just say, I'm sick of the weather this July. It has been a complete wash-out - the sort of English summer we get teased about. Endless rain, endless wind, temperature down around 16C (which oddly enough is 61F). So I'm jolly glad I'm off on holiday this week.
Yes, I'm off to Seattle on Wednesday! Where the weather is, ahm, rainy and windy, and the temperature is down around the low sixties. I know I'll get a really warm American welcome, though, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Welcome home, Luigi! Our new kitten arrives

We picked up our new kitten today. He is a blue Abyssinian and his official pedigree name is Kazizkatz George Burns, but we're going to call him Luigi.
Regular readers will recall we were supposed to get two kittens. Well, we are - but the other kitten, Mario, has had an accident and broken his leg. So he's going to stay with the breeder for another four to six weeks while it heals.
Luigi miaowed all the way home in the car. I felt like miaowing all the way home too - it was pouring with rain this morning and the traffic was horrendous. The journey to the breeder took an hour, but coming back took an hour and a half.
We're going to keep Luigi in the study for a couple of days while he gets used to us, then as he gets more confident, he'll have the run of the house. I don't think it will take long, though. He seems a very affectionate, playful little chap.

There's no place like home

Monday, July 11, 2011

Another mini-makeover

I like straight lines. I'm not sure why - perhaps it's because I've spent quite a bit of my career doing newspaper page layout, which consists mainly of lines and rectangles.
In my garden, I like the idea of the ground being a kind of grid, like a blank page, on which one places rectangular shapes. The planting areas are like the pictures on the page, while the focal points are the headlines. In between, you have "text", in the form of lawn or paving.
If it was all text, it would look very boring. If it was all headlines, or pictures, it might look rather muddled - you wouldn't know what to look at first. As with newspaper layout, it's a question of balance.
No circles, you ask? Well, I think of the plants as circles. Indeed, some of the plants in my garden are circular - or rather globular, such as the box balls. And others - cordylines, for example, or clumps of grasses - inhabit a strongly circular shape. Pots are circular (well, they mostly are in my garden, anyway). When you think about it in that way, the garden is pretty well full of circles.
Until now, I have had two curving lines in my garden, where the lawn widens out into the middle section. They were there for all the wrong reasons - I couldn't think of a way to square the corners without chopping off lots of lawn, so a curve was the easy option.
However, about three weeks ago, on advice from my garden designer friend Pamela, I cut a new rectangle into the lawn to break up the long line on the righthand side of the garden. (You can read about that here.)
The minute I'd done it, I was thrilled with it. I loved the right-angles - every time I looked at them I felt myself smiling. I had to get rid of those curves!
My usual technique for making changes to the layout of the garden is not to draw it on paper (far too much like hard work. Far too much like real work). I use bamboo canes laid out on the ground so I can see what the changes will look like in situ.
This weekend, I pottered about arranging my canes, nudging one an inch to the left here and an inch to the right there. When I'd got it all straight, I stood back. Wow, that was quite a lot of lawn to come away. I decided to ring Pamela.
Luckily, she'd been working flat out on a lecture and was ready for a break and a cup of coffee, so she came over and had a look. She approved the idea of the square edges, but agreed that my design involved cutting away quite a lot of lawn.
Instead of cutting the right-angle inside the curve, she suggested creating it by building up the outside of the curve, using the bits of turf I'd cut from elsewhere. Genius!
So here we go - the non-professional's guide to cutting a new lawn edge.

I mark out where I want the new line to go with bamboo canes. Once I've decided on the layout, I use an old plank of wood, which you can just see at the top of the picture.

The plank is heavy, so it doesn't move around. I then pour sand along the plank, to mark a straight line on the grass. I got this tip from Alan Titchmarsh, who uses dry sand in a bottle to draw the line. I never seem to have nice dry sand, just damp sand, so I use a water glass.

Once you've drawn the line, you can cut. I use an old half-moon edger which is really sharp. You can just see it at the bottom of the picture.

Then I deturf using a spade. This spade actually has a picture of Alan Titchmarsh on it! It's from Bulldog, and I'm very fond of it - not because of the picture of Alan Titchmarsh (what kind of person do you think I am?) but because it's a nice light border spade that suits my height, and it has "shoulders" on it that save my Birkenstocks from getting chewed up.

This is the non-professional way of getting a right angle. Get an old crate (or a box of some kind) and create the angle around it using two (straight) pieces of wood.
At this point, I had to go to Evensong to hear my daughter singing with her school choir and by the time I got back and cooked supper, dusk was falling. It's very difficult to get on with energetic gardening when your stomach is full of salmon and new potatoes and your head is full of John Rutter.
So I'm afraid you'll have to wait to see how it looks once it's finished - the "reveal", as they call it in makeover shows.