Friday, 29 January 2010

Feeling Protective


I am nervous. Our loft conversion starts today and there will imminently be a whole bunch of dynamic chaps jumping all over my front garden.

When we first got here it was almost entirely paved and inelegantly adorned with a dead fir tree and two nasty Lonicera nitida. I promptly withdrew their planning consent, although one of the loniceras enjoyed a brief reprieve while I tried to clip it into the shape of an ogres head.

Since then, I have added a Malus sargentii ‘Red Sentinel’, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Choisya ternata, a Sarcococca (as recommended to me by the late John Cushnie, as it happens), Lonicera fragrantissima and a black bamboo – the general idea being that things that are not evergreen are red, scented, or at least interesting in winter. There are also lots of Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ which are just risking poking their noses out of the ground (just in time to get stomped by a hobnail boot, I shouldn’t wonder) and lavender and purple sage bordering the path. And I only get away with these in a north-facing position because the drainage is really good. There is a lot of growing and filling out still to do, but I do hope nothing gets too squished in the next few weeks.

There have only been two front garden disasters so far – a thyme which turned out to be growing exactly where people step out of the car and a Rose ‘Queen Elizabeth’. It was sent to me in order to photograph planting bare-root roses, but it turned out to be uninterestingly scented and a colour scheme-busting toilet-roll pink. I think I shall hide it in my mum’s garden.

The skip has arrived too (following a call which revealed that they had the wrong house number and were trying to plonk it on top of a bungalow). This is all very exciting – I have never had a skip before and the possibilities for ditching all sorts of grievous junk are endless.

Just opened up Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life to find quite a nice picture of me brandishing my Column of the Year runner up certificate with Valerie McBride-Munro, outgoing chair of the Garden Media Guild. It is reproduced above for your delectation. Ta-daaa!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Petrified Pastry and Breeding Rock Opera


I love the Alps in winter. The Christmas card scenery is glorious (and the fact that, physically, skiing can take you from zero to hero in a week flat appeals as well). But despite floral spring joys to come, a metre of snow renders the place pretty sterile so it was a pleasure to drive back down into valleys clad in an opalescent mist, trees fresh with dusted ice and bearing dense clumps of mistletoe. And fascinating geology, strata of rock like puff pastry all folded and twisted, mistreated and left to petrify.

According to Terry Pratchett, any CD left in the car for long enough will eventually metamorphose into a Best of Queen compilation. While this was not strictly the case, as we approached northern France, after about 1300 miles, there was a definite rock anthem theme developing. In fact I think we have a small breeding population. Perhaps if we add Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, or similar, we might get an F1 generation that is rock opera without any need for Andrew Lloyd-Webber…

Returned to a cold-darkened garden. The leaves on the pyracantha and ivy are a dull black-green and there is not a berry left. The birds have raked through the borders and grass searching for food. I have no doubt the plants will bounce back, though, and the cold will hinder any overwintering pests not already eaten.

In the Feb 2010 issue of the Garden Design Journal, I write about award-winning blacksmith Melissa Cole, based near Hungerford. Her work is surprising, ethereal and funky - well worth a look.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Winter Garden



It snowed again yesterday. For a while, white clumps hung in the trees like frosted magnolias, but it is now starting to melt. Some real winter flowers like Lonicera fragrantissima are a bit scorched and the Zantedeschia aetheopica has gone all mushy (this never happened in London!) although I expect it will all bounce back. Maybe this year I will actually get around to digging the pond and bog garden I have been planning. The Zantedeschia is in a big pot but it might be more resilient in the ground.

It is pretty easy to make a garden look exciting in spring, but January is a different issue altogether. There are some performers though, I need to get a Hamamelis mollis and Daphne bholua (see picture) smells lovely, but it is also poisonous so I might wait until the children are past the chewing things stage. Or see if there is space in the front garden.

A couple of jackdaws have been lurking around on the roof, looking suspiciously down the chimneys. The chimneysweep tells me that they nest about 12 feet down the flu, which implies an intriguing vertical takeoff mechanism to get out again. But I would prefer it if they just went away.

Listening to: Paolo Nutini, quite liking the bluesy thing. Have also discovered a new, and almost total, aversion to Abba. I blame Mamma Mia.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Experimental Vine Pruning


There are plusses to this winter wonderland. The branches of the apple tree are outlined in snow, reaching and twisting like a black and white scribble against the soft grey sky. There are half a dozen goldfinches scrambling around the remains of the lemon balm looking for the little black seeds and the blackbirds are fighting over a bumper crop of pyracantha berries and what remains of the crab apples.

It all looks pretty, but I am a bit worried about the birds going hungry (According to the RSPB, a robin needs to consume half its own weight in food each day in weather like this), I keep feeding them and putting out water, but it keeps getting covered in snow. Better hope the Gulf Stream keeps doing its thing.

Last week I was in Wales checking out a garden that looks like it might fall to my care. There is lots of stuff there but most urgent was the pruning of some grapevines. I have never owned a grapevine before so it was all a bit of a learning process but my uncle handed me his felco secatures and a printout of the RHS info on training grapes and pointed me at the polytunnel. Tough as old boots (apparently). Just take the shoots back to one or two strong buds in early winter and come back when it has started growing, so they say. We shall see. Looks ok so far...

I didn't get much of a run-up to the task but grape pruning is not one of those jobs you can leave until late winter or spring as by then the vines may bleed alarmingly from the cuts. When things start growing again I will select some good strong shoots and, while I am there, smarten it up by rubbing off all the snaggy dead bits, which should be obvious by then.

Just when I thought it was all done, I discovered a young vine hidden at the back of the polytunnel behind a dense stand of fruited raspberries. Vines in their first few years need more training than when they are older. Home for tea and printouts...

By the way, have you noticed that in the recent cereal advert where Mr Kellogg creates cornflakes in his kitchen, the stuff growing outside the window is corn, as in, like, wheat? As any fule kno, cornflakes are made from maize.

The picture is Malus sargentii 'Red Sentinal'.

Listening to: Best of the Eagles (yee-hah!)

On The Snowdrop Trail


When it comes to plants I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I look at something in depth and it fires my interest I want it. Or them. All of them, probably. That one and that one and that one. This can be impractical – Walnut trees, for example. Ancient yew trees. Potatoes. Fortunately, my current passion is for snowdrops.

Having recently visited a number of snowdrop gardens including Welford Park, Kingston Bagpuize and the national collection at Colesbourne Park I am now thoroughly converted. Details of my pilgrimage can be found in the Jan 2nd 2010 issue of Amateur Gardening magazine, but it turns out that snowdrops are more than short, white and quite pretty when there is not much else to look at. They are not keen on deep shade (oh!), they have a vast natural variation (really?) and, as I was emphatically told by Colesbourne’s snowdrop supremo John Grimshaw, the planting-in-the-green thing is a myth. Move ‘em in summer, apparently.
It goes against everything I have ever been told, but the man knows his stuff and has a big shiny book to prove it. Which I also want.

The picture is of me and John Grimshaw checking out the exciting autumn flowering snowdrop Galanthus reginae-olgae.

And the 2009 award for most robust salad leaf? It has to go to wild rocket. I grew some a few years ago, since when it has gently self-seeded itself into pots and between paving, minding its own business and being generally useful. But on Christmas Eve dinner looked done for (due to a failure to construe ‘…and salad’ from the instruction ‘fruit and veg’ on the Christmas supermarket shopping list). But under a couple of inches of snow, the rocket was still going strong. Some of the older leaves were cold and translucent but new shoots yielded several handfuls of tasty leaves and the great salad disaster of December 09 was gloriously averted.

Just been handed a chilli-flavoured chocolate penguin. Really quite surprising…

Listening to: Maroon 5