Monday, August 29, 2011

The 'phew, that's a relief but I had a great time' post

I'm indebted to VP for the title of this post. The days leading up to opening your garden to the public are nerve-racking, especially if the weather is not being cooperative. So it made me smile when she left a comment on my last post saying she was looking forward to the "phew, that's a relief, but I had a great time' post. It showed great confidence in me - which at the time I did not share.
I'm also indebted to the other blogging friends who made the effort to trail over here. There was Julia and her husband, Paul (below); Arabella Sock; Simian Suter and his missus, and Cleve West and his partner Christine, who were making their second visit. Cleve hardly ever has time to blog, so if you want to know more about what he's up to, it's probably best to go to his website.
I was so pleased to see them all. Obviously, not everyone can always make the opening, but it makes a huge difference to see friendly faces. It's exactly the sort of morale boost you need when you look out of the window five minutes before you're due to open and see that it is pouring with rain.
I'd like also to mention my friends Peter and Delphine, who have loyally turned out every year that I've opened. I'm so touched by their support. And my neighbour and gardening group compadre Ruth not only brings loads of friends, but lends me several kettles as well.

Family, of course, play a huge part. My daughter Nevada, below, and her boyfriend Charlie served the tea and cakes. All the cakes were baked by moi, except the rather stupendous raspberry gateau which was contributed by my friend Pamela Johnson, who not only makes rather gorgeous cakes, but is also a brilliant garden designer.

Here's Cleve taking a picture of the garden. I meant to take more pictures myself, but as usual, didn't manage it.

So, how many people came? And did I feel that it was all worth it? Well, we had 127 visitors, which was fantastic considering what the weather was like. (It did brighten up later, thank goodness.) Our record is 166, and the lowest number we've ever had is 92, last year, so I was absolutely thrilled. I haven't had the energy to count the money yet, but I think we made around £600, which all goes to charity.

There is always the temptation to do a bit of last-minute "plonking", just to tart the place up before visitors arrive. I try to resist it, because there is a danger that a quick "plonk" can turn into a full-scale revamp. However, I think this "plonk" worked quite well. I'd bought the purple sedum from Crocus, but decided it needed something lighter as a contrast. These are Leucanthemum superbum 'Broadway Lights' and they really do light up this corner.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Two days and counting...

There's tomorrow (Friday) and then Saturday, and then my open day.
I've manage to catch up with most of the chores, and filled most of the gaps, and managed to hide or disguise various bits of mess.
These include potting up my coleus, which have been languishing for months in tiny plastic pots. I could almost hear them saying: "About bloody time too!"
I've also tidied up the "glory hole" bit right at the end of the garden, where I'd piled everything that had gone over or been chewed (such as lilies and hostas), and that I didn't have any other space for (wheelbarrow, spare garden chairs). Well, I say tidied up, but an important part of the project was positioning other pots of plants so that you couldn't see it...
I still have to plant: one heuchera, seven Carex oshimensis 'Evergold' (don't worry, six are going in windowboxes).
I still have to move: three "winter" conifers in pots. It's a very nice having things in pots that you can move into prominent positions at particular times of the year. The only problem is what you do with the pots at the other times of the year.
I still have to get rid of: the bramble that always grows up through the holly tree. (You can see why I don't rush to do that job.) Plus the garden hose, and the ladder, which are lying in wait for an unwary pedestrian on the side pathway.
I should, but know I won't: sort out the big containers under the window at the front of the house. My excuse is that Julia is going to come and take away my cycad, which is in the middle. It was a rescue plant from someone in my gardening group who didn't have room for it.
Apart from that, I have to cross my fingers, light a candle and pray for a sunny Sunday.
Oh, and make some cakes.

An uncharacteristically tidy view of the garden.

Coleus (or solenestemon, if you must) around the table area. The one below has got a bit leggy, because it looked rather good indoors, so didn't get chucked out in the garden with the rest.

Vital tools. Trowel, string, two pairs of secateurs (for when I put one down and can't remember what I did with it), and a cup of tea.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eek! Tweak! There's only a week!

Luckily, it has been a lovely day here in London, because despite my promise to myself to make an early start with tidying up the garden (well, to be scrupulously honest, to make an early start yesterday), I didn't actually get going until about 3pm.
Today's chores involved a lot of maintenance - staking, weeding, deadheading, taking off brown leaves, that sort of thing. I don't normally need to stake anything, but two of the crocosmia - 'Lucifer' and one of the yellow ones - got so enthusiastic about flowering this year that they nearly fell over.
(By the way, if someone invents a foolproof way of taking the dead leaves off a mature cordyline without a ton of dirt and muck falling down the front of your T-shirt, let me know.)
I open my garden for the National Gardens Scheme a week today. As usual, I'm alternately panicking about it - and worrying that I'm not panicking about it enough. One minute I'm ringing up Crocus and bothering them about what they've got in flower. The next, I'm sitting reading the Sunday newspaper and eating a cookie instead of Getting On With Things.
I've got the week off work, though, and there is something very nice about the prospect of pottering around the garden and the kitchen without interruption for the next few days. And Crocus have my favourite dahlias in stock, so I can use those to fill any gaps. Phew.

I love the canna leaves when the late summer sunshine hits them in the evening. Now what about some flowers, guys?

'Vancouver Centennial' pelargonium. I was wondering the other day whether this was too lurid. But in the afternoon sun, it looks good - as if you could warm your hands at it.

Canna 'Tropicanna Gold'. I casually assumed this was the same as 'Pretoria'. It isn't. Although the leaves look identical when it's in the nursery or garden centre, it doesn't get as big and the flower is not orange, but, erm, gold. As anyone but me would expect.

Ooh, look, a helper. Trouble is, Luigi thinks that "cutting the grass" means nibbling the ornamental varieties. He only comes out in the garden if one of us is out there too - we don't let him out on his own. He really enjoys bounding around, chasing bugs and butterflies ... and flattening plants. Sigh. He's so cute, though, it's impossible to be cross with him.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Simply Red: GBBD August 2011

I don't usually get involved in memes - usually because I'm too busy or disorganised. However, I met Carol from May Dreams Gardens at the garden bloggers' fling in Seattle, and I'd like to mark the making of new friends by joining in her Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day meme this month. If you'd like to get involved too, follow the link. Carol, it was such a pleasure to get to know you!
You'll probably think I'm mad if I say that I don't actually like red very much. But I do like unusual foliage, and very often - especially in the case of pelargoniums - that seems to come with brilliantly coloured flowers.
I've never understood this. If I was breeding a plant for foliage colour, I would go for more insignificant flowers that don't detract from the leaves. But what do I know?

This is the tender fuchsia, 'Thalia, with its orangey-red flowers and dark leaves. It will sometimes survive a mild winter, but never seems to recover as well as a hardy variety. It's partnered here with Pelargonium 'Occold Shield', which was bred by the Reverend Stanley Stringer, and named after his parish, Occold, in Suffolk. There's a fascinating article about him by Andy Andrews here. Apparently the Rev Stringer once started to read his Sunday sermon, only to find that he'd brought his pelargonium list to church by mistake.

Campsis grandiflora, or Chinese Trumpet Creeper. It's an absolute thrill to see this flowering so well. It is hardy (it's on a south-facing fence), and always produces lots of leaves, but it needs a lot of sun and heat to flower. I think the hot spring helped. I prune it back every year to keep it under control. Apart from that, it's a really easy plant.

Pelargonium 'Vancouver Centennial'. Fabulous foliage, but not so sure about the flowers. I've been known to cut them off.

Nasturtium 'Empress of India'. For some reason, this always does well in my garden, even under the Montezuma pine, where other nasturtiums tend to falter.

Another 'Occold Shield'. Unlike lots of pelargoniums, this will tolerate quite a bit of shade, and in fact the leaves tend to bleach if it gets too much sun.

Fuchsia magellanica 'Gold Mountain'. The leaves don't look particularly gold in this light, but this is a bombproof hardy fuchsia, which bounces back each spring as if winter had never existed. By August, it has put on about three feet of growth.

So why have all the red if I'm not sure that I like it? Well, as you can see from the picture above, you can put quite a lot of bright colour into my garden without really noticing it. It needs the occasional pop of yellow, or orange, or red as a contrast to all the green.
One of the lessons my garden has taught me is that you can't always plant something just because you love it. I often hear people say that they don't like grasses, or heucheras, or conifers. They want flowers, and more flowers. But sometimes, we need to think outside our own prejudices in order to provide contrast and texture.
If it's any consolation, once I've experimented with a plant I wouldn't normally have thought of planting, I usually become addicted to it. Happy Bloom Day!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dusk and the evil hour

"Putting off the evil hour" was one of my grandmother's favourite expressions. It originates in the Bible, of course (Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near - Amos 6:3), like so many of the expressions we still use today.
For my grandmother, however, the "evil hour" usually referred to some distasteful task or event, such as the ironing (in her case) or piano practice (in mine).
It basically means to procrastinate, or to use a more modern idiom, to fill your time with displacement activities rather than getting on with the job at hand.
I know this will resonate with many of you, especially patientgardener who remarked on Twitter the other day that she has been known to clean the whole house before writing a commissioned blog post. "Commissioned" is the key word, because while I can sit down quite happily and witter away on my own blog, the minute I have to write a piece for someone else, the whole process becomes much more fraught.
I've been trying all day - all week - to sit down and write a piece for the Independent Magazine about my garden. What could be easier? And yet I find it so difficult to focus on it.
I meant to sit down and start at 6pm, but decided the lawn had to be cut instead. Then a bit of weeding and deadheading just had to be done.
Part of the "putting off the evil hour" involved taking pictures of the garden at dusk, inspired by photographer David Perry's blog. David gave us a photography seminar while I was in Seattle (I might get around to posting about it one of these days).
The results were a bit mixed, unlike his wonderful examples, but I did take a photograph of my fig tree, which for the first time has what look like viable figs. This is because I actually got round to pruning it this spring, and pulled off all the unripened figs last September as you're supposed to do.
So, there's a lesson here. Don't put things off, and you'll be rewarded. I'm off to write my piece now!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

After the storm

I've got a photographer coming to shoot my garden tomorrow, so today was a day of frenzied activity interspersed with heavy showers. I can't garden when it's raining hard - I've nothing against getting wet, but my glasses aren't fitted with wipers. So when the sky turned black, I got in the car and headed for the tip
Eventually, I got almost everything that needed doing done, and nearly all the rubbish disposed of, thanks to my son who helped me heave it all into the car. I've still got a few odds and ends to sort out, but basically, things look OK.
At least, they will look OK until the photographer gets here, at which point I shall notice a large strand of bindweed waving about, and a plant that I forgot to pot up, and a bunch of dead leaves in the pond, and ... several other things, I daresay.

I love the light after a storm. I nearly fell down the step rushing out into the garden to photograph these cannas while a single ray of sun shone down on them.

Shooting into the sun. I quite like the misty effect you get.

The shadow of the cordyline on the lawn looks like something out of Sesame Street - Big Bird, perhaps.

If you don't look too closely, my hostas still look OK. That's a canna in the front, helping the illusion along.

My bargain Washingtonias from Homebase. I love the way the light shines through their leaves.

Eucomis, pelargoniums and Carex oshimensis 'Evergold'

Every time I see this colour combination, I want to wolf-whistle. It is just so outrageous.

Fabulous year for the campsis. Some years it doesn't flower at all - it needs a long season of warm weather to get up to speed. The hot weather we had in spring must have helped it on its way. It's got loads of buds.

More eucomis. I don't know what variety they are - they're pass-along plants from my neighbour Ruth - as are some of the red-leaved cannas. I don't know what she does to eucomis, but hers always look spectacular, so I was delighted when she gave me a clump.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Luigi is learning fast

Blogging came crashing to a halt last week - in other words, I went back to work. I find the task of writing a daily editor's letter quite cures me of any creative writing urges. (You can find me on page 3 of the i newspaper every day next week.)
I haven't finished my Seattle posts, and I have a queue of articles to write or organise. Luckily, Graham Rice has helped ease the load by agreeing to write a piece for The Independent Magazine about the theme of his new book, Planting the Dry Shade Garden. It's published by Timber Press on 1 September, but you can read Graham's article on 20 August.
I've only had time to have a very quick flick through the book so far (it arrived in the office yesterday), but it looks great - full of advice, ideas and planting suggestions.
I'm supposed to be writing a piece about opening my garden, which is, erm, three weeks away. Eeek! The photographer is coming on Monday morning, which means a frantic tidy-up. So have I been busy gardening or thinking up ideas for articles? Er, no. I've been taking silly pictures of the cat.
He's so cute, I felt you'd like to share an update on how he's getting on. As you can see, he's turning into a very useful member of the household ...

He's been learning to sort the laundry...

... and fold the ironing

... and hang up the washing

(must just straighten these trousers)

... and load the dishwasher

... and clean the kitchen floor

... and recycle the rubbish

... and check whether the kitchen plinths have been wiped recently

... and found time to appreciate a bit of classical music. What a clever kitten!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Seattle is hot, hot, hot

The sun had decided to make an appearance on the first day of our tour, and by the morning of Saturday - Day 2 - the Seattle news channels were forecasting a fine summer weekend. Not only did this confound the nay-sayers at home in the UK ("Going to Seattle? Better take an umbrella, huhr, huhr"), it also allowed us to appreciate fully the view from the first garden on the day's itinerary.

Great, isn't it? It was quite a long time before we could tear ourselves away and look at the garden. The little dark smudge on the horizon, below, is downtown Seattle.

The Eppings built their house themselves, about eight years ago, on a steep corner site. This not only gave them the spectacular views, but allowed them to take full advantage of light and space. A path gently sloped up round the side of the garden with strategically placed focal points - a water feature, a bench, a set of steps. It wasn't steep, but if you did run out of breath, there was always something that you could stop to admire.

I liked their use of containers - this one almost looks as if the plants in it have dripped onto the earth below.

I had serious hakonechloa envy when I saw these huge clumps of Japanese forest grass. So many plants in Seattle look as if they're on steroids; these were very different from the meagre fronds in my garden.

I liked the stone head, on the right, with its dreadlocks of trailing succulent, and the focal point that led you into the woodland part of the garden. The garden looks so well-established, it's difficult to think that it's only been here for a few years.

Here's that view again. Sorry, couldn't resist. Another feature I found irresistible, but failed to take a picture, were the glass urns from which the Eppings served us iced tea and pink lemonade. They were exactly the right kind of garden hosts - kind and welcoming and patient. As, indeed, were all the people we encountered in Seattle.

The next garden on the list was the Lanes' garden, a complete contrast. Here, a woodland garden wrapped itself around the house on three sides. The site was about an acre, but by cultivating right up to the road and creating various areas within the garden, the owners had made it seem much larger.

I liked the gunnera leaf fountain on this formal pool. I think I would have been tempted to plant gunnera beside it, but it's such a monster of a plant, perhaps it would have been out of scale.

Great birdhouse tree...

And another water feature, this time in a sunny clearing...

And another one...

One of the most impressive things about the Lane garden however, which I didn't photograph, was the outdoor kitchen, which you can just see in the background of this picture. It was paved with huge tiles made of concrete stained the colour of redwood, and the Lanes very kindly let us have lunch there. There was ample room for all 70 of us.

After stuffing our faces and feasting our eyes, we made our way to the Bellevue Botanical Gardens, where the first thing I saw was a garter snake. I hate snakes. When I was a child, I couldn't even look at a picture of a snake in a book - and I didn't take a picture of this one either, because my hands were shaking too much (much to the amusement of my American friends).
Indeed, I didn't take many pictures at all at Bellevue because I was too busy buying a sun hat in the gift shop. Yes, you heard that right - a sun hat. I'd packed wet weather gear, but nothing to wear if it got hot. And as you can see from the pictures below, it was getting very hot indeed.
The Americans seem to do really good straw sun hats. I bought my favourite gardening hat in Florida and I've come to the conclusion that if you want a hat for wearing in the sun, it's best to buy one in a climate that sees a lot of sunshine. Both this one and the Florida one are crushable, too, so you can ram them in a suitcase.

Hat on head, it was time for the final item on the day's itinerary - the Olympic Sculpture Park, part of the Seattle Art Museum. I'd come across a new word in Seattle: docent. I think it's a German word, but in the States it typically means someone who leads a tour - around a gallery or museum, for example - and is usually a volunteer. I'd quickly learned to head for the docent with the loudest voice and the feistiest personality since they will a, probably tell funny stories, and b, you can hear what they say.
The sculpture park docent was brilliant. She gave us a quick history of the park (it's called Olympic after the mountain range you can see in the distance, by the way, not the Games) and a tour of the major sculptures.

This is one of the first things you see at the sculpture park - this is Split, by American sculptor Roxy Paine. Stainless steel trees are Paine's "thing", as it were, posing the question: "What is nature, what is art?" A perfect philosophical debate for garden bloggers. Check this out too.

The sculpture park is extremely popular with wedding parties, who go there to be photographed and even have receptions there. I loved the way this bride's veil formed a soft, floating counterpart to the monolithic concrete structure. But if you don't want to keep dodging out of the way of wedding photographers, don't visit on Saturday afternoon.

Father and Son, by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, who died last year. It was funded by a legacy from Stu Smailes, a former executive of Safeco, the US insurance group. He gave $1m to the city of Seattle on condition it purchased a piece of public art that included realistic, lifesize nude male figures. Apparently, he was very keen on Ancient Greek sculpture and the male nude in art. At this point, Barbara muttered behind me: "But we won't go there," which gave me the giggles. One of the figures is obscured by the fountain while the other is on show. Only when the fountains change once an hour can you see both figures stretching out their arms to each other.

Alexander Calder's monumental The Eagle. I loved the way it framed the Space Needle in the distance, but if you look at it from the other side, it almost seems on the point of taking flight above the ocean.

Bunyon's Chess, by Mark di Suvero, who uses found objects in his work. It looks like the skeleton of a sailing ship, with its mast-like structure and heavy timbers.

Louise Nevelson also used found objects in her work. If you pull up this picture and look at the piece lying on the ground, you can see that the middle section is composed of document holders - the sort that you can buy in stationery stores to hold magazines or papers. This is called Sky Landscape I.

I love the way the plants and the sky are reflected in this sculpture, so that you're not quite sure what is there and what isn't there. This is Perre's Ventaglio III by Beverly Pepper.

In a park built on a monolithic scale, you need a really huge piece to maintain the impact. I think we were all impressed by Wake, by Richard Serra, which unrolls like a series of giant waves as you reach the lowest level of the park. At first glance, it looks like an enormous steel wall. Only as you get closer do you realise that it is separate components.

The structures suggest the hulls of ships - appropriately for a port city - and one of the machines used in their manufacture was once used for French nuclear submarines.

The surface of the weatherproof steel varies according to whether it faces the prevailing wind or rain. Those facing the ocean look almost like leopard-skin, while the other side of the structure is more streaky and linear. Seen from a distance, they look like a convoy of smokestacks - there's something rather menacing and purposeful about them.
But then we Flingers probably looked rather menacing and purposeful too.