Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Have Yourself A Veggie Little Christmas

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas
 This is the second broadly non-gardening post in a row, but I am going to resume that line of attack when I have actually done some. (Although I did set out to prune my apple and pear trees on Christmas Day, armed with long-handled loppers and secateurs. I went out and looked at them. Thought ‘Um’. Snipped off a few twigs, mourned my immediate lack of pruning saw* and step ladder and went back inside. )

But with Boxing Day comes renewed vigour. Starting the day with black coffee and stollen in bed followed by cranberry and orange smoothie will do that every time.

I have long held that it is not that vegetarian food is lacking in flavour, nutrition and excitement; rather, people generally make it very badly and then exit, disappointed. I favour the Hugh-and-Jamie technique of boshing ingredients together to create food that excites and inspires. And as self-appointed queen of the adapted recipe I was very happy to get the River Cottage Veg book. It has some really good ideas and the evangelistic fervour for things vegetable is rather endearing. (But what took you so long guys?)

Mix and match fillings
But that was after lunch. In an eternal mission to keep tastebuds on their toes lunch was, in fact, Unexpected Tarts with all the expected Christmas trimmings. You do it like this:

Blind bake some seasoned pastry in jam tart tins. Caramelise some onions and lightly cook some little cubes of squash and small broccoli florets. Season a little cream with black pepper and bouillion powder and coat the broccoli and squash (keeping them separate).
I'm no food photographer, but they did taste nice

In each pastry case put a base of caramelised onions. Then create a little pile of squash or broccoli (or leek or mushroom or celeriac etc). Then add one of: slivers of chilli/chopped walnuts/cranberry sauce. Then top some with brie, some with cheddar and some with stilton and bake for 10 mins-ish. (Broccoli, cranberry sauce and brie was very good as was squash, chilli and cheddar...and broccoli, walnut and get the idea).

This produces 4096 different variables (I think) so a) you can cater for all tastes and b) it stays interesting and unexpected. Hence the name. The problem is that because each one tastes different it is hard to stop.

Boxing Day: veggie sushi party at my sister’s. I have always been deeply suspicious of sushi – for obvious reasons – but people tell me it is good. So as not to be too Green Eggs and Ham** about things*** I had an open mind (although I am not wild about rice, dubious about nori, would rather leave tofu and have conservative views of soy sauce).

Turns out I like making OCD vegetables – lightly wilted spinach, neat strips of seasoned carrot, slivers of avocado, spring onion and shitake mushrooms. But I really don’t like teriyaki sauce. I like shitake mushrooms, ginger, sesame seeds; really liked wasabi – and all the veg. And I tried, I really did. But it was sticky and salty and slimy in places, and I can’t be doing with the textures. I am sorry Sam-I-Am, I’d rather leave Green Eggs and Ham.

*We never rush Christmas and as it happened a spanking new Felco pruning saw turned up under the tree on Boxing Day

 ** “I do not want it in a boat, I do not want it with a goat, I do not want it in a box I do not want it with a fox, I do not like green eggs and ham, I DO NOT LIKE THEM Sam I Am”. With thanks to Dr Seuss

*** ...But ham is not on the menu and I don’t like actual eggs much either...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Garden Media Guild Awards - The Musical

Ok, if you want serious gardening commentary look away now. This is how I think the Garden Media Guild Awards would look if it were iterated as a musical or rock opera. All events and personalities depicted are almost entirely fictional* (apart from 3 Men Went to Mow, clearly). Here is the outline and draft soundtrack** - I am now going away to work on the choreography.

'The Pub', Act 4...

Garden Media Guild Awards – The Musical
Act One

The good and the great of the gardening media world awake. They dress uncommonly carefully, remove stray mud and have a coffee. There is a sense of anticipation, excitement even as they leave the house.
On arrival they are greeted by a bowler-hatted gentleman and attend to the first business of the day – the GMG AGM. Votes are cast, more coffee is drunk, opinions shared. Onwards and upwards, say all.

Act Two
In a swirl of glittering society, a glass of pink champagne is pressed into the hands of our heroes. A slow dance of top-ranking gardening people ebb and flow in a vivid, breathless throng. Old friends are met. Work, gossip and the gardening issues of the day are discussed as they move in to dine.

Act Three

Gorgeous dancing waiters served enthralled diners with opera cake.
And the show began. With an explosion of irreverence, the entertainment arrives to perform eye-opening routines in song and dance. One by one the winners dance to the stage, to kisses and applause while the runners up receive certificates in the crowd. In a final crescendo of song and dance, a full-crowd performance centres on the journalists crowned. Those who didn’t win swallow their disappointment and think ‘So what! i’m as good as the next man’ and continue to party with gusto.

Act Four
But the show is not yet over. While some opt for a quiet chat chat over afternoon tea to bring things down a bit, the party animals go on to the pub. Increasingly tired and a little emotional the gardening great and good engage in a demon networking dance routine and generally let it out. Until it is finally time to go home.

Many hours later they awake. The buzz fades, the blues pass, it is another beautiful morning and life goes on as normal. The vision fades.

... And they all lived happily*** ever after.

The End
*I make no fun of anyone and no criticism is implied - I just got bored on the train home and started inventing song and dance routines!
**Apologies in advance for the quality of some of the sound - youtube is beyond my control.
*** Muddily, literary, photogenically...whatever happy is for you.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Every Girl's Guide to Gardening

Helenium crowns can be split into single buds in Autumn or Spring (if you want 45,000 of them)

It’s been said before and I’ll say it again. If you want to be good at gardening (or writing about gardening) there is no substitute for getting your hands dirty by doing as much of it as possible.

For example. Today I have learned that a Japanese wineberry tip-roots like blackberries do. Not sure why I should be surprised, it is clearly just a fancy bramble. And I also learned that it is b***d spiky if you try and pull the rooted bits out by hand.
Through practical experience it has been impressed upon me that tumbling backwards out of the herbaceous border onto the path in an enthusiasm of weeding is distinctly inelegant. Even if one does end up sweetly scented with rosemary and lavender.

I have reminded myself (again) that nettles and gardening gloves are made for each other.  And concluded that Margery Fish’s maxim ‘when in doubt plant a geranium’ should come with the corollary that one should choose one’s geranium variety carefully, or they will be planting themselves all over the place without so much as a ‘by your leave’, before you know it.

Distracted while dividing a mega-Helenium, I discovered that even quite a small clump of Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens will split easily into myriad neat tufts, to great dramatic effect (next year, assuming it does not die horribly. The RHS actually advises dividing in spring. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.) This was shortly followed by the realisation that six bags of mulch does not look nearly so much when spread out an inch or so thick on the ground.
Interesting one mulch. Or, rather, the process of mulching. Many of the better NGS gardens of my acquaintance mulch very heavily. Tonnes of the stuff. The only time I have mulched really effectively was in my London front garden. Heavy, reluctant clay turned sweet and workable in a year flat thanks to the application of three inches of well-rotted, chipped wood. Magic.  (It was only about 3 metres square though).

Back to the point, my practical gain is the garden centres’ loss. I’m only going to be buying one of everything in future. The last geranium I bought could be turned into four plants without even growing it on. I’m the perennial-dividing, cutting-taking queen. Oh yes.
So get off the sofa. Stop watching Carol Klein dividing her perennials and mulching the her borders - her garden is already lovely. Put down the glass of wine (That bit is important). Get outside and find out first hand whether whacking a spade through the middle of a clump of Hemerocallis has the same effect as Ms Klein’s, elegantly demonstrated, back-to-back-garden-fork division routine. Take an improving book with you if you must. Accept that there may be failures. But if you don’t give it a try, you aint ever really going to know.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Brothers In Arms: Finding a Generation of Gardeners

Radishes: The first thing I ever grew

I am, according to a recent RHS press release, part of a lost generation. A generation whose gardening skills are eclipsed by those of our parents, grandparents and, increasingly, our children.
Enthralled by my first row of radishes sown aged about four, under the wing of my botanical uncle, I got the bug early and continued through a childhood of growing sweet peas and foraging fruit. I loved natural history, botany and biology. I wanted to be David Attenborough when I grew up. Or Gerald Durrell. Or the Swiss Family Robinson. Or to present Tomorrow’s World.

But whether too deep in classic children’s literature or just a bit slow on the uptake, it never really occurred to me that my keen, green fingers were a generational anomaly. I didn’t care much, either. I figured that they would grow into it, cos lots of older people are into gardening, right?
Right. According to the RHS 55% of people were taught gardening in school in the 1950s and it is kind of activity that sticks with you. Eighty percent of the grandparents surveyed said they liked to garden.

When I started work at Which? Gardening in 1999, one of the questions that I was asked at interview was ‘how would you engage children in gardening’. I forget exactly what I said, but I got the job. And, as I stood engagingly at flower shows, what emerged was that it was not the kids who were the problem. The children would stop and look at sweetie-bright tomatoes and mangetout, be fascinated by the shapes and textures of exotic fruit...before being yanked away by a parent tutting “Come ON! You won’t like those!”.

But children have now been the target for well over a decade (40% are taught horticulture at school). So long that  the media mostly won’t touch interesting school gardens because they are SOOO 2004.  It is now the parents of those children to whom gardening reaches out. And, reaching out to novices of my own generation (1% of whom were taught gardening in school according to the same press release), I recently did a series for beginners in Kitchen Garden magazine, charting the highs and lows of my own gardening antics.*
Discussing the state of affairs with m’ esteemed colleague @malvernmeet on twitter, she opined “Come on RHS, how about doing something for grownups as well as kids?”

Well, yes. But also, come on grownups. Ok so it may not have been cool to garden in the 80s. Lace gloves and big hair don’t really lend themselves to digging and weeding. Maybe our own parents were too busy trying to surf miners strikes, property booms, greed is good, incipient economic downturn, shoulder pads and lunatic prime ministers to take their post-punk asses gardening. (With our new romantic, material girl asses, presumably).This analogy is wearing thin. Maybe the 80s was the decade that invented parental inadequacy**. I want it all and I want it now.

But now we can reclaim the borders, the allotments, the secateurs. Think Greenham Common and gay pride – you know how it’s done. So, brothers and sisters of the lost generation get yourselves down to Wisley. Stick red roses in down the barrels of umbrellas and fruit shoots, defuse the turf war between our parents and our children who both want the place to themselves. Enjoy. As Nike said, circa 1988, Gardening: Just Do It. 

*I grow stuff, I experiment, I muddle along. Comparatively experienced perhaps, but can I make it quite clear that I am not competing with the big boys here. Medwyn Williams should not lose sleep.

**Interestingly, no one mentions the ‘60s and ‘70s in all  this. Possibly because no one can remember whether they were gardening or not.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

One Weed to Rule Them All

Urban Dystopia

At the weekend I returned to a garden that I made about eight years ago to show it some love. Funny, you turn your back for five minutes (or five years as the case may be) and everything goes berserk.
The formerly modestly proportioned planting was level with the fence and swathed in a thick blanket of bindweed. Not simply bindweed growing through it, more a dense shroud over straining shrubs, the stems coiling up from the ground in fat ropes. Stringy corpses from summers past providing a ladder for this year’s growth. The mat of foliage covered a good third of the garden, swamping the shrubs and reaching up into the cherry tree.

Working my way into the murky green understory to undermine the menace, I considered a dystopia; humans gone, neighbours no longer trimming the tree and battling the bindweed on the boundary. Where the fence collapsed and the spreading, new, layered plants of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Lonicera fragrantissima and Forsythia marched across the neighbourhood like a slow motion ornamental army, the joyous curling bindweed fluttering like flags unfettered.
Despite my machete-work the bindweed flying carpet remained suspended, apparently held up by sky hooks. A different tactic was called for. I grabbed bunches of the stuff, cutting across to remove it in progressive sections. That showed it.

Next, the monster rose. Deep red, beautifully scented Rose ‘Etoile de Hollande’ was to trail prettily up the kitchen extension in a romantic, roses around the door sort of way. With a maximum size of 12ft (according to the label*) it should have been a tidy solution. But it too had made its way into the cherry tree. The flowers could be seen if one glanced upwards from the upstairs windows and the stems, now several inches across, threatened to rip the guttering and outside tap off the wall.
Rosa 'Etoile de Hollande'
If one were, for example, shopping for plants to surround a castle in which one had locked ones daughters away from young oiks with unseemly ideas, ‘Etoile de Hollande’ would be an excellent choice. If one, for example, wants subsequently to extract ones daughters, or simply to do a spot of pruning, the results are markedly uncomfortable.

A 480 cubic foot heap of brash in a 25 foot garden is daunting. I went and bought a shredder. I am normally a total machinery wuss, and shredders are just a step down from chainsaws in terms of noisy and scary. But I am now a total convert. Munched it down properly small it did. And didn’t die on me either (so far).
So I took the presents that the garden had given me; rose cuttings and the new shrubs from old. I comforted the miserable Cotinus, got in the car and drove onto the north circular. Dystopias is as dystopias does.  If the A406 is on the side of righteousness, order and light then I am with the bindweed and the dark army.

*Crocus says that its eventual height is 5.5m, however. Um.....

Friday, 26 August 2011

Horti-Couture on the Western Fringe

Festival goer Kenny and his superior hat

It turns out, contrary to popular belief, that Chelsea Flower Show does not have the corner on cutting edge fashion. Sure, the stylish gentleman cutting a dash in white suit, white patent leather shoes, red snake-style belt and a flower-studded Astroturf titfer at Chelsea '11 made front cover of The Guardian's G2 section (as I recollect) but his horti-sartorial antics are just the tip of the iceberg*.

Last weekend’s trip to the western fringes of the empire, aka Green Man Festival, was delightful. I was charmed by the bicycle-powered Venus fly trap chasing a six-foot fly around site. And hats as sported by Mr Bloom of Mr Bloom’s Nursery**  fame, are the pinnacle of popularity. But it was the rather awesome creation above that got my Best in Show award. Mohican daffodils and ivy with an integral head-torch prove that horti-couture can combine style and function with insouciant effectiveness. (Thanks for the pic, Kenny!).

Like Glastonbury green fields writ large and set in spectacular Welsh mountain scenery, the festival site on the Glanusk estate also has the bonus of some really interesting trees. According to a source there are gazillions of rare oaks. I have been unable to verify this, but my friend Lumberjack spent the weekend happily collecting foliage specimens for later identification, like some sort of green man in training.

The mansion was demolished in the 1950s and the central Ty Mawr is, in fact, decidedly Bach, but the music rolls out into a landscaped garden littered with viburnums, acers, magnolias and Davidia. There is also a lengthy rill which doubles as a superior linear paddling pool, plus there are plenty of opportunities for amateur garden archaeology (“So, if the mansion was here, this is where the formal garden would have been and this has to have originally been the walled kitchen garden, maybe a herb garden here – Heligan has something similar...”etc). Hours of fun, even if the original garden is now sadly neglected.

The green man himself, hugely tall, with flowers springing from his very footsteps, epitomises earthy awesomeness. In the hollow interior, paper leaves are filled with wishes; anonymous expressions of hope for friends, for the future, for babies lost or yet to arrive. I wrote my message and fled the pathos.

On stage, welsh language acts rubbed shoulders with Noah and the Whale (who I didn’t rate), Treefight for Sunlight who were a dreamy, lying on the grass sort of act with hints of Kula Shaker and Boo Radleys (which tells you how long it is since I paid attention) and Bellowhead’s exhilarating electro-folk shenanigans. They had 25 instruments including a chap playing what looked a lot like wakka-chakka bouzouki. Marvellous.    

Festival shopping has evolved from mostly head-gear (no, not hats) and tie-dye to include Victorian bathing suits, frilly knickers and fairy wings as day-wear. But in my opinion you can't go wrong with the classics - candyfloss, glitter, loo-roll and sun cream never go out of style.

*And no, no lettuce jokes. That would be painful.

**Still waiting for the ‘Meet the Veggies’ festival set

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Burlesque Principle of Garden Design

You don't want to see everything at once...

This may appear esoteric even by my own standards but bear with me. I have a point, nay an academic principle to propound. And I have been thinking about this for a while.

Garden design is a bit like stripping*. The posh sort, of course, but getting your kit off nevertheless. In the same way that you don’t (so I am led to believe) see a lady walk on stage, drop her metaphorical towel, go ‘ta dahh!’ and walk off again, you want a garden to tease you a bit.

The concept is well known, garden rooms are ten a penny, but the comparative epiphany came when I recently visited a garden that needed a little mystery. It showed its, undeniably outstanding, best feature off immediately ...but then there was nothing much left to keep you hanging on.
Really good gardens are the ones that keep you guessing. The ones that captivate, that go on and on with surprise views, distant temptations and sudden flurries of excitement and beauty. The ones that make you go ‘wow’ not just the once but over and over again as they gradually reveal their charms.
Those burlesque girls have those big, feathery things, lacy edges and gauzy drapes for a reason. And that reason is that the delights you are anticipating are more thrilling if you wonder and yearn for a glimpse, try and peep around corners and generally have time to wonder whether she can actually walk in those shoes, where she got the lingerie from and exactly how much yoga one would need to do to look like that (or maybe that is just me).
Alluring peep-hole hedging

Gardens have curves and corners too, dense cloaking evergreens and gauzy birches and grasses, iron corsetry, fine bone-structure and graceful movement. They should lead you on beguiling and tempting and the visit should end with a sense of a journey well travelled; elegant and fragrant discoveries made. Not a sense of ‘was that it?’.
As googling ‘burlesque’ (but not as googling ‘garden design’, curiously,) will tell you, it should be ‘Flirty fun and fabulous’. Not blatant and swift.
Access all areas?

So, boys and girls, this is not so much gratuitous mental imagery and an attempt to get my blog hit rate up as a (slightly)serious point. Next time you think ‘it’s lovely but what on earth is it doing hidden around there?!’ it is the garden design difference between Dita von Teese and Rene the Dockers Delight** at work. You may not see everything, all at once, and you may spend a bit more money (plants, underwear, whatever) in the process. But the results will be worth it.

I don’t have any pictures of burlesque – that is what the internet is for – but here are some conceptual illustrations. I rest my case.

*This does not in any sense equate garden designers with strippers. Its about the garden as an entity, not the person who makes it pretty.
**And no-one wants carrying on with stokers from the coast of Kuala Lumpur in their herbaceous border, no matter what the Small Faces have to say about it.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Case of Mistaken Identity

'Diamonds and Rust' by Tony Smith at RHS Hampton Court 2011.
Brings new meaning to smoking grass

Small son has been helping with the gardening. Mistook runner beans for bindweed. Runner beans not looking quite so fine and healthy anymore.

It is a pity. They were romping up an arch over the path as a catch crop, growing ahead of the roses and clematis that will eventually cover it. All very on trend. The idea was to create an exciting and decorative edible tunnel with a nod to Victorian ornamentals. Fortunately some escaped the depredations of well meaning infants so the vision may yet be realised.

Just back from a lovely day at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, I had supper in the garden and, mangled bits aside, for the first time it seemed like it is not doing too badly. The roses are flowering, I am very excited about the Hemerocallis that I got from Waddesdon Plant Centre earlier in the year and the designed bits outnumber the randomly-gone-to-seed bits for the first time since we took it on as a chest-high carpet of thistles and goldenrod.
Shortly following the runner bean incident, I visited a friend. Making lunch, her mother popped into her garden for bay and came back with laurel, Prunus lusitanica

Don’t really want to do that.... It is on a par of being almost sure that that mushroom is the edible (or hallucinogenic) one and getting a bad case of tummy ache or death. (Although to be fair my Poisonous Plants book says it happens all the time with laurel. Spot of cyanide in the supper. Lovely). And it is a bit Darwin award-ish to get in wrong in a garden where these things are usually better labelled than in the wild.

And back on the home front, someone told my sister the other day that they didn’t need to know her name. They knew who she was because she looked like me. Sure, there are a few similarities but this form of identity amalgamation didn’t go down too well. Make no mistake, people. We are all individuals.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Exploding Alliums, Batman!*

The spiky space-flowers of Allium christophii

I rarely do anything by halves and  with my current drive to finish planting up the garden, my plant bender continues. With the hefty swag of roses planted this spring establishing nicely, I am filling the spaces between. Before Christmas, I received a very exciting box of bulbs from De Jager containing, inter alia, alliums.
Now I have not had much success with alliums so far (I know not why, probably buying rubbish bulbs in the first place) but they are a wonderful thing. The first time I exhibited at Chelsea, I left the showground on the final day staggering under the weight of flowers blagged from nursery exhibitors and went home to live in a room that, for a while, resembled a floral marquee.
So having got the fat, promising-looking bulbs into pots and soil, I loved and nurtured them; watered them, coaxed them, glared at them and generally willed them to perform. And perform they have. Allium christophii is a particular favourite. Big, bold, spiky it is a mass of hard little space-flowers and is making its presence felt in the new mixed border with floppy roses and lychnis coronaria. And in the cool border too, with phlox and geraniums. Allium nigrum (kinda white with green bits) is pretty fab as well and I have high hopes of Allium caeruleum which is a delicate blue effort. Later than the others, it is not out yet, but it is looking good – sproinging out a few starter buds. I just hope that it can stand the competition of its rather vigorous herbaceous neighbours.
Watching alliums come into flower is a bit like making popcorn. One little bud bursts into a wiry purple flower, then another, then pop pop pop, give it a shake (optional), there is a sudden explosion of flowers and the job’s a good un. I’ll be doing that again.
By the way did anyone see Springwatch the other night? Watched it with my ten year old. Brings a whole, unexpected, new dimension to explaining about the birds and bees...

Update: And for those engaged in Naomi-watch, I was on BBC Radio Berkshire this morning, am in The Gurdian Weekend today (11th) and can be found in Kitchen Garden Magazine and Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life Magazine every month. Enjoy.

*This is lazy of me. I have already had ‘Sparkling Snowdrops, Batman!’ as a title, but if bat-flowers work, don’t fix ‘em...

Monday, 9 May 2011

Magic Mixtures

Spring flowers

I am having a last ditch attempt to plant a specimen tree in my front garden, which is very well-drained and north facing - although the bit by the road does get the sun. Lavender and sage love it and the Malus sargentii is doing well with much food, mulch and love, but the corner of near the gate is proving recalcitrant. It has already claimed two victims, a Hamamelis and a magnolia, and I am having a final go with another magnolia (but not the one from a few blogs ago, a new and different one) before I move on to plan B (although I am not yet sure what that would be).

Anyway, I have chosen a much smaller plant so its needs are not immediately so great. I dug a big hole, oooh at least three or four times as big as the pot. And I made up a magic mix of compost, some of the soil from the hole, pelleted chicken manure, some Carbon Gold biochar and a shake of swell-gel to hold water. The idea is to get it going in a lovely, moist, nutrient rich environment which will enable it to take on anything and romp away. But of course there is always a risk that it will push its roots out of the original planting hole and sadly conclude that the world is a harsh, cold place.

My back garden, although it does not yet know it, has become a marvellous source of inspiration and interesting bouquets. I am quite getting into freeform flower design and it is rather pleasing how, if you plant stuff you like how it all goes together rather well in a posy. Tulip 'Queen of Night', Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', white lilac, some aquilegias, bit of sage... Just add ribbon in a fetching shade of plum and Bob’s your uncle. And Rose Madame Alfred Carriere has opened up its first two blooms - lovely.

Other than that, I’ve been driving; and listening to compilation CDs in the car has its pitfalls. I mean, what is scarecrow man Rod Stewart all about? Even as an uber-mod he was not a patch on Steve Marriot. And as for Kate Bush. Pop music for bats.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Dancing Tulips

Tulips 'Abu Hassan' and 'Queen of Night' and some gatecrashers

With all this lovely warmth has come lots of lovely plant growth, which is great as I have 12 new plants in one border alone...although this does have watering implications. My neighbour’s wisteria is coming into flower and smells wonderful and my tulips are looking fantastic too, especially my favourite ‘Abu Hassan’ and inky ‘Queen of Night’. I always heard that ‘Queen of Night’ was a bit effete and would fade out after a couple of years but these have bucked the trend and multiplied by half, so all good there.

When I visit beautiful gardens for work, I often discover a gardener inspired by Sarah Raven and her colour schemes. One of her tips is, apparently, that one should arrange flowers like a wedding – a big one as a bride, several smaller ones that echo the form of the big one as bridesmaids, some other stuff as guests and then add a gatecrasher – a contrasting, uninvited flower to shake the whole look up. The picture above is my hot border; the yellow tulip arrived completely on its own (well, with one of its mates, a rogue allium with a drink problem) – which I was a bit cross about, but I am coming round to the idea that it is a good dancer and saves the tulip season from boredom.

The weeds are getting going too - at the biodynamic garden at Waltham Place in Berkshire, they grow bindweed up obelisks in the borders so it actually contributes to the look by adding height while not strangling the other plants. Sadly I don’t think my little patch has the grandeur to take it.

Yesterday I caught myself wishing that the gardening pixies would arrive in the night and do the weeding for me. But if every dandelion disappeared by magic, would this not be unsatisfying? As if I was somehow cheating? I have switched my wishes for unseen assistance – I am now hoping that the tidying up and laundry-putting-away pixies will come. Housework I am much less attached to.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Year of the Garden

Herbs at Sheepdrove Organic Farm
I walked the long way home by the canal yesterday just because it was there, all narrow boats, sunlight and ducklings (ahhh!) and blackthorn blossom blowing into the water. Soon I am going to the official launch of the National Gardens Scheme Yellow book, a genteel and pleasant occasion and I am looking forward to seeing my NGS friends.

It is perverse. The more there is to blog about, the less time there is to do so and vice versa. On the work front there are places to go and people to see and on the garden front it is all getting going in a very exciting fashion.

My car has very rudely gone bang, which means that my garden centre list is starting to get slightly out of control. I try and exercise extreme restraint at all times, but right now I want to get pelletted chicken manure and two Lonicera fragrantissima and a cardoon and a small shrub rose and a couple of dark orange Erysimum and some candelabra primulas and an evergreen shrubby thing to go in front of the new dustbin-hide (up which I am going to grow a clematis) and another magnolia would be nice and I wonder if I dig a bigger, more composty hole if I could replace my hydrangea petiolaris which died because it was in too dry a spot and I would like a Solanum jasminoides but I don’t know where I am going to put it yet....and so on.

All of which sounds slightly Augustus Gloop-ish but we have spent four years getting the house up to scratch with the garden playing second fiddle. It started life as a jungle of head-high goldenrod and thistles and now, with the structure in place and the perennials starting to bulk up, it is time for some serious planting. This is going to be the year. Oh yes.

Last summer I visited Sheepdrove Farm in Berkshire where they grow lots of exciting herbs for Neal’s Yard cosmetics. There were some excellent ginger biscuits in the eco-conference centre and I had a lovely chat with Peter Kindersley (of Dorling Kindersley fame). One of the good things about this job is that one meets a lot of inspiring and dynamic people and Peter is one for the ‘when I grow up...’ list. I wrote all about it in Amateur Gardening (26 March issue), if you are interested.

Still on the subject of lotions and potions, I recently bought some Wise Woman hand cream. It may well be advantageous to be wise when choosing cosmetics and the higher the SPF the better, but I can’t help thinking that slightly rash women probably have more fun.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Making A Garden Good

A fluffy bud of Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'
It has been an absolutely cracking weekend for gardening. Roses propped, check. Trees pruned, check. Seeds sown, yup. Little hide built for dustbin, uh huh.

As part of the plan to divide the back garden into different parts and create a sense of journey and surprise (TM), I have got a new garden arch to go across the path just the other side of the apple tree. When things dry up a bit I will paint it my regulation shade of soft aqua but I have got the plants in anyway – a box ball provides a punctuation point at the base of the arch and the beginning of the border and rose ‘Ena Harkness’ will romp up it, adding to the hot colour scheme in that particular bed. Next to that I put in the Hemerocallis ‘Burning Embers’ that I impulse bought, along with Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel', at Waddesdon Plant Centre the other night while attending the launch of the regional Berkshire and Buckinghamshire NGS booklet. Was good actually, but I hadn’t got half way home before I was asking myself why I hadn’t got a whole lot more new and exciting things while I was at it.

....Which is why I went on a clematis bender on Saturday. Ok, so I had also already got the little purple Clematis alpina ‘Frankie’, but then I passed a man in the market with lots of pretty things on a Dutch trolley, and Clematisisisis ‘Niobe’, montana ‘Rubens’, ‘Madame Julia Correvon’, Etoile de Violette’ and ‘Multi Blue’ (and a Jasmine Beesianum) just kind of fell into a bag (in a ‘crikey, better get back to the cashpoint’ sort of way).

So that’s the vertical gardening sorted for a bit....

Currently watching : Rastamouse. Makin' a Bad Ting Good is a fine rule for life, and  Da Easy Crew playing reggae when the work is through suits me. (Not so keen on Ice Popp though).

Thanks to the Rasta Rodent, Da Easy Crew and President Wensley Dale, things are pretty crucial round here. It probably has its applications in the garden too: ‘Hey Miss Jekyll, me lovin’ those crucial herbaceous borders’; ‘Chelsea Flower Show goin’ to be totally crucial this year’ etc. I think this may take a bit more work....but me gettin' there. Irie.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Pedantry, snowdrops and snakes

Spreads of snowdrop Galanthus nivalis at Welford Park in Berkshire
 Anyway, there I was at 7am last Saturday listening to one of those compilations with a title like 'The Essential Power of Ultimate Music, Ever', on my way to a hot date to talk gardening with BBC Radio Berkshire, when up pops Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’. You know: I want to love you but I better not touch (Don't touch) /I want to hold you but my senses tell me to stop/I want to kiss you but I want it too much (Too much) /I want to taste you but your lips are venomous poison. etc.

Driving when one should be sleeping leaves plenty if time to be pedantic about artistic licence. As any fule kno, but possibly not as any snake-fancying rock icon kno, poison is not in itself venomous. Venomous animals use fangs or a sting to inject their venom which is a biotoxin. Poisons can be absorbed, ingested or inhaled and need not be organic. Technically, wasps are venomous while poison arrow frogs are, well, poisonous. If Mr Cooper ate his venomous snake it would (probably) not poison him. And so on. Nothing that a spot of punctuation wouldn’t solve. Alice, if you are reading, let’s talk.*

With such things sorted, I rocked up in Reading feeling upbeat and had a lovely chat about snowdrops and pruning with Nicki Whiteman on the BBC Berks Breakfast show. On the snowdrop front, Welford Park and Kingston Bagpuize House will be looking awesome round about now (check out my spring feature in Period Homes and Interiors, Feb issue for an in-depth on Kinston Bagpuize garden) and Foxgrove Nursery is a prolific local source of unusual varieties (see Feb issue of Berks and Bucks Life). Coming up, I will be off to the launch of the Buckinghamshire National Gardens Scheme booklet and I am looking forward to seeing the 2011 NGS Yellow Book as I contributed to it this year. Enough trumpet-blowing. Things are sprouting, planting is a-go-go and I will tell you all about it soon.

*I don’t, however, have the original album sleeve so I may be doing Alice Cooper a grave grammatical injustice here.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Of Mud and Moonlight

Exploded Spaghetti

It has finally got warm enough to do some gardening, which is rather nice as it is high time I gave my plot some attention. A merry hour or two has been spent mulching and cutting things back and while not exactly finished and not exactly tidy in every facet, it does look a little bit more intentional.

This weekend I also got around to putting up a new rose arch (glamorously leading to the compost heap), planted Rose ‘Malvern Hills’ up against it and spread around the packet of Biochar soil conditioner that I was given at the Garden Press Event last year. Been busy, that is my excuse. Anyway the borders in question will doubtless be grateful.

Still on the to do list is to tie up the Parthenocissus henryana as the top stems are drooping somewhat and it needs to work twice as hard this coming year to make the wall look nice following the sad demise of the Hydrangea petiolaris that couldn’t hack its dry position.

Despite the chill, the plants seem to be sending up little shoots – the clematis and roses are sprouting, all the bulbs are poking their noses out and there is a flash of brilliant pink from the rhubarb. So all good there.

When I was on holiday recently I read (or re-read) three books, James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie and the autobiography of rose-man Peter Beales, Rose Petals and Muddy Footprints. The choice was coincidental but there were some interesting parallels between the books. These were the biographies or fictionalised biographies of people who had been children or young men in the 1920s and 1930s, with the fallout from war and pervasive economic hardship.

The styles were very different – Herriot’s light, self-effacing irony; Lee’s lush, sensual descriptions of the bitter, surreal and hyper-real life in a relatively isolated community. And Beales’, the least literary (perhaps no surprise as he didn’t seem to spend much time at school) but no less vivid in its bleak description of the hard work of rural life which was all about hewing wood and drawing water and the excitement of motorbikes and cars versus horses. All interesting reads and I found myself looking over my shoulder again at my own grandfather who, during the war, would ride his motorbike from Exeter to London on a bright moonlit night as headlights were forbidden in the blackout.

This is a picture of what happens if you drop a full packet of spaghetti onto the kitchen floor.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

All the Small Things

Brassica seedlings - a rather more planned sowing...

Yesterday I woke up to the sound of rustling and a light staccato hissing, as of rain or small beads falling, punctuated by the occasional satisfied ‘ga!’ of a toddler employed in a really good game. Quiet games being cause for some concern, I opened my eyes to find that my youngest had helped himself to a document wallet that I had been slinging packets of seeds into as a holding bay during the gardening mayhem of the last six months.

He had been happily pouring out the open ones and ripping up the closed ones and was sat in a pile of clean laundry with seeds of all sizes sprinkled gaily around. Clearly I have only myself to blame for leaving things within reach (although ‘out of reach’ seems to be a smaller place every day that passes) but this does leave me with the problem of what to do with a mixed selection of endive, wild rocket, beetroot, coriander, lettuce ‘freckles’ and something that may or may not be kale.

Doubtless a graduated sieve would help, but life is too short to mess around with such things. My plan is to wait a little while until the days are brighter then sow the mixture in trays of compost in the heated propagator. When they come up I can a) harvest them as microleaves or b) prick them out and grow them on, depending on what the mixture turns out to be and whether they all come up at the same time (unlikely). With any luck I will be able to salvage at least some seedlings. Cutting things off in their prime seems to be a bit wrong, and that is something for which my son has cause to be grateful.