Monday, November 28, 2011

Winter wonderland at Wisley

I haven't been feeling very well for the past few days, so this morning - my day 0ff - I decided that I needed a, some fresh air; b, to get away from everyone and c, to think about something other than work and what to buy at the supermarket.
So I switched off my phone, jumped in the car, and went to Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden in Surrey, which is about 25 minutes drive away.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Wisley. I love Wisley, but I hate having to share it with hordes of people. Unreasonable and intolerant, I know, but there you go. Today, it was busy. Very busy. There was a craft fair taking place this weekend, the existence of which had slipped my mind until I arrived in the overflowing car park. Dang!, I thought. (Except I didn't spell it that way.)
Anyway, my mission was to photograph the Tom Stuart-Smith borders around the Bicentenary Glasshouse, so I stomped off in search of autumnal vistas and other visual delights.

Wisley looks good at any time of year, but in autumn it can look spectacular. I'd never noticed before that from this angle, the fountain in the Long Pond echoes the shape of the tree in the distance. (Swamp cypress, perhaps?)

The cornus still have their leaves on, but you can see the bright stems underneath, which heightens the effect. This one is called 'Midwinter Fire' - and you can guess why.

The low light of winter makes rich colours, such as these pyracantha and holly berries, really glow. That's one of the great benefits of living this far north - the light is constantly changing, from season to season, from day to day, hour to hour. These colours might look garish in late spring or midsummer, but at this time of year, they are rich and jewel-like.

But even cool colours, such as the blue-green of these euphorbia, can light up the border, especially if placed next to spectacular autumn foliage, or this Yucca filamentosa 'Garland's Gold', with its intensely rich yellow variegation.

Anyway, to the Glasshouse borders. I'm fascinated by these. It's not often that we get the chance to see such a large area of planting take shape, from bare earth just four years ago, and this is a huge site - two hectares (or nearly five acres, in old money). The borders begin at the entrance to the Glasshouse, and sweep round to the western side, where there are two areas of prairie planting, designed by Professor James Hitchmough of Sheffield University.
At this time of year, the two blend seamlessly together, thanks to the extensive use of grasses and prairie-type perennials such as helenium, veronicastrum and echinacea in the Stuart-Smith borders.

Phlomis russeliana is another favourite, its seedheads popping up like exclamation marks above the misty hummocks of grass.

To me, this is clever, clever planting. Choosing plants that keep the structure of the borders going right into winter takes real skill. I just could not get tired of looking at it.
They look wonderful in summer of course - but late autumn allows you to see how the hummocks and humps of grasses - whether they are low-growing festuca or statuesque miscanthus - echo the billowing shapes of the trees and the landscape beyond.
The occasional explosion of orange beech leaves from the intermittent hedging around the lake picks up the vibrant foliage of a distant tree flaunting its autumn colours.

I tend, from time to time, to suffer from the delusion that I am the next Garden Photographer of the Year. Goodness knows why, because I only have a point-and-shoot, I have absolutely no idea what ISO stands for and the nearest I have come to photographic greatness is standing next to Derek St Romaine at the Chelsea Flower Show.
I love the process of going out and taking pictures of gardens, however, so I was really looking forward to my stint at Wisley today. I was down there last week, with my mother, when the Glasshouse borders were glittering and shimmering in the sunshine. Naturally, I'd forgotten my camera, so I'd vowed to go back as soon as I had a minute.
The weather, and my camera, had other ideas. I kept hoping the sun would break through, but it sulked behind a cloud for most of the morning. Whenever it looked like it might make an appearance, the dodgy battery in my camera would give up, at which point the air around me turned blue, and the sky remained resolutely grey.
Three times, I gave up and walked back round the gardens to the cafe in search of a cup of tea.
Three times the sun came out again just as I reached the cafe, at which point I scampered back to the Glasshouse borders (about half a mile away). Each time the sun disappeared by the time I got back there.
Eventually, the mummies with pushchairs - of which there are many at Wisley - were beginning to give me funny looks and tell their offspring to "hold onto the pram, darling". I think it was all the swearing.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Enough with the cute cat pictures!

Only kidding! Would I seriously ever say that? I couldn't resist posting these.

This is what you might call a Basket Case Study. It proves the immutable feline law that a cat in the vicinity of a box or basket will feel an irresistible urge to jump inside. Even if there is already another cat in it.

"The Paw you will always have with you." With apologies for misquoting the Gospel of St Matthew.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Designing with plants

Arranging plants in a garden is a bit like any creative endeavour. When you get it right, it looks effortless - but trying to get it right is a very different matter. I wrote a piece for The Independent Magazine this weekend, about this very problem and if you want to read it, here's the link.
I was interviewing two garden designers, Jill Anderson and Pamela Johnson, about their new book, called Planting Design Essentials.
As I say in the piece, many aspects of planting design deserve a whole book to themselves - colour, texture, finding the right plant for the right place and so on. But this is a good book to have at your elbow if you're planning a piece of planting, if only to make you more disciplined in your approach, and to help you think through the process in a simple, logical way.
Measuring the space, for example, before you go to the nursery or garden centre, will ensure that you come home with the right number of plants. If you find yourself succumbing to an impulse buy, as we all do, the book advises you to ask yourself some very tough questions about whether you have the right situation for this particular plant.
I've known Pamela Johnson for several years, and she is a valued member of my local gardening group - generous with her advice, and very good at making canapes! If you want to see what her own garden is like, go here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

For Craig

In memory of my darling husband, Craig Orr, who died three years ago today.

Perhaps if Death is kind, and there can be returning,
We will come back to earth some fragrant night,
And take these lanes to find the sea, and bending
Breathe the same honeysuckle, low and white.

We will come down at night to these resounding beaches
And the long gentle thunder of the sea,
Here for a single hour in the wide starlight
We shall be happy, for the dead are free

Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Killer cat!

Since I lost my lovely Pushkin, other neighbourhood cats have decided to encroach upon our garden. Our two Abyssinians, Mario and Luigi, don't go out in the garden yet - I want to make sure that they are 100 per cent certain to come when they're called before they do. (They're pretty good, so it won't be long.)
But in the meantime, the other cats are making themselves at home - and wreaking havoc. Hardly a day goes past when I don't find a pile of feathers on the lawn.
I've always fed the birds in my garden, all year round. When Pushkin was alive, he would catch the occasional fledgling, but not in huge numbers, so it didn't deter me. As far as I could see, the benefits of feeding outweighed the risk of the occasional death.
When I heard people blame cats for the decline in garden birds, I'd think they were exaggerating (or anti-cat).
The RSPB says that cats are thought to catch around 55 million birds per year, but they add there is no evidence to show that predation by cats is having any effect on bird populations UK-wide.
However, the amount of damage these invading cats do is really frightening. One is a big fat tabby, the other a portly black and white cat. There's an occasional ginger chap, too. You wouldn't think they were capable of walking five yards, let alone catching anything.
Has anyone got any bright ideas as to what I can do about this? Apart from protecting the bird life, I'd like to deter these cats from coming into the garden anyway - I don't want my boys to have to fight for a space on the lawn once they start to go outside.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day: November 2011

There was an appeal to gardeners the other day from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who wanted people to stop ripping out, or cutting back, ivy. Ivy flowers at this time of year, providing a much-needed source of food for late-flying insects and birds.
There are gardeners who see ivy as a sort of pernicious weed, to eradicated wherever possible in case it pulls down the house or the fence, or kills a tree. I rather like it, particularly the cultivars with golden variegation, but there are other plants that provide nectar and pollen at this time of year.
Fatsia japonica, which, like ivy, is a plant many people despise, is also in full flower right now, and in my garden, this autumn has been a spectacular season for it. The flowerheads are huge, fluffy flamboyant affairs, which are great for flower arrangements (they look even better while they're in bud).
I always think fatsia looks better from above, when the shapes of the leaves are easier to see, so it's a great plant for a dry, shady basement area, or a lower level of the garden.

It's odd that the plants which provide solutions to common gardening problems, such as dry shade and late summer colour, are often the plants at which people tend to turn up their noses.
Personally, I find fatsia, and its cousin, Fatshedera lizei - a cross between fatsia and English ivy, Hedera helix - invaluable background plants, so it's nice to see them enjoying their moment in the sun.
You can use fatshedera instead of ivy as a climber, if you want something a little less invasive. It has large showy leaves and the same fluffy flowerheads, but it doesn't have aerial roots that cement themselves to a wall or fence. The branches, with their clusters of glossy leaves, can become quite heavy and snap, so it needs to be tied to a trellis or support.
Fatsia, of course, is completely self-supporting - this one in my garden, below, is approaching the size of a small tree. Planted in the ground, they will tolerate pruning, shade and drought. You can grow them in containers (and mine has a habit of self-seeding into any pots nearby) but this hugely reduces their ability to survive quite tough conditions.

Another plant that provides late autumn flowers and fragrance in my garden is the loquat, or Eriobotrya japonica, which is a favourite with late-flying butterflies such as Red Admirals. It's hardy throughout most of the UK, and the flowers have a lovely almond fragrance, like marzipan. It prefers a sheltered spot, and full sun. In a mild winter, it may even produce fruit, but these probably won't ripen and you'll end up with something that tastes like a sour apricot.
Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by the lovely Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Head over there to see what's blooming in Carol's Indiana garden, and to check out GBBD posts from around the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Miaow is for Monteverdi

My daughter's close harmony group came round to rehearse today - they are performing at a Christmas Fair at the Battersea Arts Centre tomorrow, and they have a residential choral workshop next weekend. This is them rehearsing Monteverdi's Beatus Vir, written circa 1630.

They were missing a couple of singers, so Luigi decided he would sit in for one of the altos ...

Here he is again. As you can see, he doesn't even need the music...

You can just see Mario get in on the act, on Luigi's left. He's singing second soprano.
How come they can sing so high? Well, they have just been neutered.
Joking apart, at the time that Monteverdi was composing, it was very common to see castrati singing both in operas and in sacred choral music. But I don't think Signor M. had cats in mind when he came to write his masterpieces, somehow.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sweet peas and apple crumble

A completely irrelevant picture of my garden, taken on 17 October, when we could still pretend it was summer

I was invited to a lovely luncheon party today, hosted by Lady Hamilton of Dalzell, vice-president of the conservation charity Plant Heritage, at her home in Surrey.
The journey took me out of London via the A217, a road romantically known as the Sutton bypass. It's not my favourite road, since it is punctuated at regular intervals by speed cameras, traffic lights, and people who want to make inconvenient right turns, but don't always signal this intention until the very last minute.
Today, however, with the last of the autumn leaves clinging to the trees, and a low mist veiling the North Downs, it seemed positively idyllic.
The guests were a mixture of journalists and Plant Heritage people, including three National Plant Collection holders. These were Chris Lane (hamamelis, and also wisteria), Roger Parsons (lathyrus, ie sweet peas) and Michael McIllmurray (orchids). Sadly, I didn't get a chance to talk to Dr McIllmurray, but it was fascinating listening to Roger and Chris.
Chris was sitting next to me at lunch, and he was so bombarded with questions that he could hardly eat his boeuf bourguignon (served with potatoes dauphinois and carrots, and followed by apple crumble and cream. Now that's what I call a November lunch.)
National Plant Collection holders, as you might expect, are men and women with a mission. Chris Lane told us how, when he decided to specialise in witch hazels at his home in Kent, he only had an empty field and the traditional wisdom is that they prefer woodland conditions. Undeterred, he went ahead - and found that his hamamelis seemed to bloom even more prolifically in an open situation.
His nursery is wholesale only, although he does hold open days and you can find details here. Only got room for one witch hazel? Chris recommends Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida', which has large yellow flowers, a wonderful scent and yellow autumn leaf colour too.
Roger Parsons has worked as a gardener all his life, but it was only when he took early retirement that he was able to concentrate on his passion, sweet peas. His favourite is 'Albutt Blue', a Semi-Grandiflora variety that is white with a blue picotee edge and a wonderful scent.
Roger, like many gardeners, uses well-rotted horse manure as a fertiliser, but unlike many gardeners, his manure comes from his own horses. His wife is a keen horsewoman and she has introduced Roger - who doesn't ride - to miniature horses. They have their first mare in foal, and the new baby should be trotting around in time for the nursery open days in June.
Details of these will be posted on Roger's website. I'll be there. Wild - or indeed miniature - horses couldn't keep me away.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

With a little help from my (blogging) friends

As part of the autumn tidy-up, I decided to revamp the pots outside the back doors. We have two sets of glass sliding doors, and in the middle, against the wall, I've always had some sort of large specimen plant. Currently - and satisfactorily - it is a Trachycarpus wagnerianus, which throws nice sharp shadows against the wall when the sun hits it.

It was in a huge galvanised steel container, which was supposed to look modern and chic. While it was busy looking modern and chic, it slowly rusted to pieces and I had to replace it. I decided to get a glazed pot, which in my experience survive frost and wet far better.
I've also edited down the number of pots in this grouping, which I think looks far smarter, especially in winter when flowering container plants (such as daffodils or irises or tulips) tend to look more upright and formal than summer versions such as pelargoniums or Lotus berthelotii, which scramble everywhere.
But what really made me look closely at rearranging this grouping was patientgardener's comment on this blog a while ago that the heights of the pots needed to be more varied.
This is how it looked in summer (below). As you can see, there are more pots, many at the same sort of height, so the effect is one of sprawling chaos.

Not that I have anything against sprawling chaos, mind - but what I was trying to achieve was the effect of the pots outside Great Dixter (below). Revisiting this photograph, I realised that while I'd achieved the effect of lots of pots (not exactly a brain-teaser), what I'd failed to achieve was the graduated height of the display. Much more tricky.
If you ever get the chance to hear Fergus Garrett, the head gardener at Great Dixter, give a lecture (and do go, if you can - he's a terrific speaker) you will be told that achieving this change of levels is one of the most crucial elements of a good design.

The point of all this is that sometimes we need an objective eye assessing what we do, or someone to bounce ideas off, or simply someone with whom to commiserate when things go pear-shaped in the garden. For me, blogging provides this in a way that family (not that interested), or friends (too polite to criticise), or books (informative, but not exactly responsive!) do not.
Many of the people whose blogs I read are professional gardeners and/or designers. Some are talented and passionate amateurs. Some have grandchildren; some have young families; some are retirees; many work full-time. But what they all share is a huge appetite for information, and an enthusiasm for their subject.
The result is access to something that is like a cross between a database and a 24-hour Q&A session. How on earth did we ever garden before the internet, I wonder?
According to the Garden Media Guild, who hold their annual awards ceremony on 30 November, there were eight candidates for the blog of the year award in 2008. This year there are 31.
Not everyone sees the proliferation of these cyber-communicators as a good thing, however. Many - not all - professional gardening writers object to being judged alongside "amateur" writers. They complain that bloggers undercut their rates, and pinch their space, on the basis that publishers, with an eye to their budgets, will persuade bloggers to write for nothing - or very little - thus depriving the professionals of their livelihood.
I used to have some sympathy for this view - writing is a perilous enough occupation, financially speaking, without having to compete with contributors for whom the kudos is more important than the cash.
On the whole, though, I'm becoming increasingly impatient with it. Most "professional" garden writers - ie, those who make their living at it - have no formal writing or journalism qualifications. As someone who has done the National Council for the Training of Journalists certificate, a two-year formal newspaper apprenticeship in the provinces, plus 30 years up the sharp end in Fleet Street, I fail to see quite how they come to be so snobbish about their journalistic abilities.
This is not to say they can't write - many write beautifully, of course. But so do lots of bloggers. And sure, they may have horticultural qualifications - but then, so do lots of bloggers.
The sharing of information - whether it's advice from a fellow blogger about how to overwinter my dahlias, or an account of a visit to a famous garden - can only be of benefit to everyone. When it comes to activities such as gardening, an increase in knowledge usually leads to an increase in enthusiasm - and that means more hits for the bloggers and more book sales for the established writers.