Mossy trees and furry creatures

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Yew berries - Dawyck Botanic Garden

Yew berries – Dawyck Botanic Garden

I think it might be a sign of growing older that time appears to have sped up. I now find myself saying phrases like ‘Where has the time gone?’, ‘Is it 5 o’ clock/ Friday/ October already?’ Things creep up on me now. I was horrified to see Christmas crackers and puddings in the supermarket the other day not because of frustration with the over-commercialisation of the festive season, but rather the realisation that Christmas isn’t actually THAT far away. Oh, and I woke up the other day in a cold sweat when it dawned on me that I have less than a month to finish the book.

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Dawyck Botanic Garden

September merged into October for me whilst on a trip to Scotland. We loved Edinburgh so much last year that we thought we’d go again. It was a fantastic break catching up with a friend, eating great food and taking in the stunning scenery. I do wish someone would invent teleportation though. Any journey which involves the M6 is a slog, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being stuck in a traffic jam. If it’s possible I try to plan a stop-off to beak up long journeys. Not only are they a way of seeing somewhere which I might not otherwise, they are essential for restoring the blood flow to my legs after a prolonged period in the car. Dawyck Botanic Garden is an hour or so south of Edinburgh, so it seemed the perfect place to stop for a walk and the obligatory cup of tea. Dawyck, a few miles outside the town of Biggar (stop the sniggering at the back), is an arboretum under the management of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The collection, covering over 60 acres, was once part of the Dawyck Estate where, over 300 years, 3 successive families have planted and maintained a globally significant collection of trees.

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It was the fresh clean air which I noticed first. Now, it’s not as if I live in a polluted city choked by traffic exhaust fumes. Okay, sometimes the air in my village is a tad potent thanks to the silage the farmer has spread, but generally I’m lucky to be able to take deep breaths of clean Welsh air. There was something very noticeable though about Dawyck, it had a zing to the air that you get in alpine villages. It’s the sort of place that makes you feel as if you’ve had an expensive facial when you haven’t. Then you notice the trees. My, what trees! They were like green skyscrapers shooting up towards the clouds; there’s something awe-inspiring about such gigantic trees. I get a similar feeling when I’m on a beach and I’m faced with the vastness of the sky, clouds and sea; this is nature in all its glory and it’s fabulous. If you love trees you’ll love it here. The location, with the mountains, craggy hillsides and gushing streams, is unlike the other arboretums I have visited, which tend to have been created in more gently undulating landscapes. Thanks to the stunning surroundings Dawyck has some fabulous vistas. My favourite was looking down from the Beech Walk towards the privately owned house with its classic Scottish Baronial architecture and Trahenna Hill looming over it.

Dawyck House

Dawyck House

The Veitches were the first family to live at Dawyck, in the castle which predated the current house, and they started the tradition of tree planting. The Naesmyths who followed continued the legacy. This was a family with a serious interest in plant hunting and especially trees. Sir James (1704-1779) trained under the tutelage of the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, and his grandson Sir John Murray discovered a new species of beech growing on the estate with an unusual columnar habit of growth; it subsequently became known as the Dawyck Beech. Sir John also funded the trips of plant hunters such as William Lobb and David Douglas. The Douglas Trail within the arboretum includes the famous firs named after him which are believed to be among the first to have been grown in the UK. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Balfour family became the new owners. Fred Balfour added to the arboretum including trees from North America and Asia. He too financed plant collectors in return for seed. He wasn’t just a tree lover though, under his ownership azaleas and rhododendrons, meconopsis and daffodils were planted to add interest to the gardens throughout the year. The Balfours still live in Dawyck House, but they gifted the arboretum to the Botanic Gardens in 1979.

Lichen covered trees at Dawyck Botanic Garden

Lichen covered trees at Dawyck Botanic Garden

In the clear unpolluted air lichens thrive. There were some trees which were so covered in lichen it was hard to tell what they were underneath the dripping, Gandalf-like lichen beards. A whole area is devoted to crytogams. Despite 4 years of studying horticulture I’d never heard of the word before – it means a plant which reproduces by spores instead of flowers and seeds, and includes mosses, fungi, liverworts, ferns and algae. The damp conditions make it perfect for mosses and the understory to the trees was a mossy equivalent of a shag pile carpet, deep, springy and verdant green.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh are a world leader in the study of cryptogams. As part of this research a Scots Pine, planted from seed at Dawyck in the 1840s and blown down in the 1990s, is being studied as it decays to see which fungi and organisms make it their home. I find these elements of horticulture, the less glamorous side of it, fascinating. It’s easy and obvious why we adore flowers but I love that there are people out there who make it their life’s work to study the plants that so often go unnoticed.

Edinburgh panda

And so to the furry creatures mentioned in the title. It wasn’t part of the plan to visit Edinburgh Zoo but the rain came down and we didn’t fancy wandering around an art gallery. I did wonder if we’d made the right decision as we squelched our way to the entrance but I’m so glad we chose animals over Whistler and Monet. Of course, the pandas have grabbed a huge amount of attention since their arrival at the zoo. The will-there-won’t-there be the patter of tiny panda paws has disappointingly come to nothing. It did mean however that the panda enclosure was open to visitors once again. I have learnt from years of zoo visits not to get my hopes up about seeing any particular creature. I have stood in front of many an enclosure searching high and low for the advertised creature only to shuffle off still none the wiser as to what a slow loris looks like in the fur. We timed our visit to the panda enclosure perfectly. We arrived to be told by the keeper that the male panda had been lying on a plinth for 4 hours. Within seconds it got up, strolled along the back wall, then walked straight towards us so it was within inches of the fence, before disappearing inside and out of view. For the briefest of moments we got to see one of the most iconic creatures on the planet and closer than I had ever imagined.

Another creature, an animal I have wanted to see ever since I can remember, was even more obliging. Edinburgh Zoo is the only place in the UK where you can see koalas and it was such a treat to see them. Considering koalas spend 23 out of 24 hours a day asleep we were lucky to see to see one of them eating, stretching and climbing, albeit all done at a measured koala pace. It must have exhausted itself though because it too joined its fellow koalas for a snooze, but I’m not sure it can get any cuter than a sleeping koala resting its head on a paw.

P.s. Thanks to Wellyman for his fab photos.

Sleeping koala

The Laskett

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The Laskett

A statue of Britannia – The Laskett

The Laskett is tucked away down a Herefordshire lane. We’ve driven past here before but we had no idea what lay behind the tall hedges of brambles and ivy, and it’s not what you would expect to find here among the rolling hills, orchards and pastures of such a rural county. For thirty years the gardens at The Laskett were the creation of Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. She was a celebrated set designer working for TV, film, opera and ballet, he is an author and one time director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Italianate gardens with nods to early English gardens and a theatrical theme running throughout were created from scratch, carved from simple bare fields surrounding the house. Julia died in 2003 and there was a period where the gardens remained untouched, but in recent years the gardens have been subject to a programme of renewal which is ongoing.

The Laskett

Snapshots – Windows in the hedging – The Laskett

I had very little knowledge of the gardens, to be honest it came as a bit of a surprise when I came across The Laskett and realised that we lived so close by. Generally you can only visit as part of a group but a few weekends ago the gardens were open as part of the National Gardens Scheme. I deliberately didn’t read anything about the garden before we went. I wanted to go there without preconceptions or expectations. I’d caught a glimpse or two from the website when checking the location, so had an idea that it would be theatrical, but other than that it would be a surprise and hopefully a pleasant one. Coming across a formal garden, statuary and topiary isn’t unusual in rural parts but they tend to come with a grand entrance and an even grander house. Both of these features set the scene and expectations. The Laskett has the surprise element because it lacks this grandness. That isn’t meant as a criticism, in fact in my opinion it’s a plus. It’s the sort of setting where you would expect to find a cottage garden wrapped around the house, instead I felt as if I had been transported to a villa outside Rome, which was the real joy of this garden. The early autumn sunshine helped somewhat but it was easy to forget I was in Herefordshire. There were follies, temples, statues and vast urns but it takes much more than a few urns and statues to convince someone they’re in Italy.

The Laskett

The Laskett

This is a garden that has been made by people with a great eye for detail but also for the bigger picture. The vistas which have been created by the paths and hedges dividing the garden have created living set designs. It’s very easy to see how Julia’s work on large productions for ballets and operas have translated into the creation of The Laskett. It makes for an incredibly photogenic garden and a very pleasing space to spend time.

The Laskett

Knot garden in front of the house – The Laskett

Initially, I was bit underwhelmed when we first entered the garden. The path takes you into an area in front of the house with a topiary knot garden which, although perfectly fine, just didn’t have a great deal of impact for me. Off to one side of the house was an area under reconstruction. I’ll admit that ten minutes or so into the visit I was wondering if this was it but then we followed the path around the side of the house and that’s when the element of surprise really hits.

The Laskett

The Silver Jubilee Garden – The Laskett

If a garden is about expressing the personality and passions of the owner/s then The Laskett certainly does that. Many of the structures and plants commemorate people and periods in the lives of both Roy and Julia – there’s an arbour for Sir Frederick Ashton, a choreographer for the Royal Ballet for whom Julia designed sets and a sundial from Sir Cecil Beaton’s garden, marking their friendship. Most of us can’t name drop knights of the realm but it’s easy to relate to wanting our gardens to reflect our lives, particularly if we’ve lived somewhere for a long time. Reading about the garden afterwards I discovered that certain plants around the gardens held special memories. There is a quince tree which grew from a cutting taken from a tree growing in Julia’s grandfather’s garden; rosemary, which could be found dotted about the garden had strong family connections too. I think most of us have plants in our gardens which we’ve inherited or been given as a present. For me gardens designed by a designer for a client so often feel a little sterile because they lack these personal connections and touches.

The structural planting of pruned yew, box and beech form the backbone of the garden. There are some fabulous specimen trees including an Acer griseum whose copper-coloured peeling bark glowed in the early autumn light. The majority of the planting comprises shrubs and seasonal highlights. It’s quite traditional in many ways and follows the Italian style of planting which relies on structure rather than colourful plants. Changes can be seen though – the new border was a riot of colour in early September with prairie-style plants in full bloom.

Structure from topiary - The Laskett

Structure from topiary – The Laskett

If you described a garden to someone as set in rural Herefordshire but designed on Italianate principles, which had a ‘Triumphal Arch’, a colonaded temple to provide shelter when having tea and cake and a life size stag statue with gilded antlers they would be forgiven for thinking it would be like a theme park. The Laskett isn’t. It’s somewhere that feels like a genuine expression of the lives of two people who had an immense passion for the place, a garden which has been created with love and which has given immense pleasure in return.

A plum …. but not as you know it

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Greengage 'Cambridge Favourite'

Greengage ‘Cambridge Favourite’

I’ve become a bit of a recluse recently. Book number 2 is taking up all my attention at the moment with a final push before my deadline and I’m digging deep to keep the motivation going. I only really realised how little time I have spent in the garden over the last few weeks after a whole day of gardening on Saturday. The garden had started to look a little rough around the edges but it was the stiffness which followed the gardening that took me by surprise. I felt like I normally do at the start of spring, at this time of year I would expect to be ‘garden fit’. I sat down on Saturday night for an hour or so and then got up to get a cup of tea and Wellyman had to give me a helping push to get me upright. Too much time sat in front of my computer, I think. And, you know you need to get out more when you get a tad too excited about a punnet of greengages at the supermarket.

The greengage is a fruit I’ve heard about but until relatively recently had never actually come across. It had almost started to take on mythical properties – a fruit that had once, many moons ago, filled late summer and early autumn kitchens where cooks wearing mop caps and proper aprons, surrounded by copper pans, would turn them into jams and compotes. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the chance to taste them, so a punnet was purchased. On the way home I wondered why they were such a rarity – they are deemed as a ‘speciality’ fruit by the supermarket. This thought only grew stronger once I had tried them, they were delicious.

Greengages are cultivars of the plum family. If you think greengages are a fruit of the past it turns out there are also yellowgages, such as the amber-coloured ‘Coe’s Golden Drop’, and the strangely titled ‘transparent gages’ like ‘Early Transparent Gage’, not much time was lost on thinking up that name! Greengages tend to be slightly smaller and a bit more round than a normal plum but the most obvious visual difference is the green-coloured fruit.  There is something a little odd about biting into a green fruit. Your brain is saying ‘don’t do it, it’ll not be ripe and it’ll taste bitter’ but in the case of greengages your brain couldn’t be more wrong. That first bite is very much of a delightful honeyed sweetness and it is this that distinguishes gages, in all their various hues, from a typical plum. I love plums with their slight tartness but greengages are something else, so why are the shelves of supermarkets groaning under plums, and greengages are sidelined to the ‘unusual fruits’ section?

Greengages have been cultivated from a wild green plum and are popular in Europe, particularly France, Germany and into Eastern Europe. It’s believed that they came to Britain from France in the 18th century, but the story is a little confused. Accounts vary as to whether they were imported by Sir William Gage to plant in his garden at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk or whether it was another branch of the family and Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820) of Firle Place in Sussex which introduced the greengage. Whichever Gage, the story is that the labels were lost in transit and that when the plums turned out to be green they became known as green Gage’s plums. An avenue of greengages form the structure to the current kitchen garden at Firle.

In France greengages are known as ‘Reine Claudes’ after a 16th century queen. Perhaps she gorged herself on them, which would be perfectly understandable, or maybe the royal gardener discovered these honey-flavoured fruits and named them after her.

‘Cambridge Favourite’, an old heritage variety is the greengage I bought but as it turns out there are quite a few to choose from if you’re thinking of growing your own. Some are more suitable to growing in the UK than others. And this is where we get to the crux of the matter – why they aren’t more widely available as a cultivated fruit? Well it seems like they might be a bit difficult to grow in a typical British climate. Gages need a lot of moisture which isn’t normally a problem for most British growers but they also dislike sitting in waterlogged soil. They also flower early in spring and, whilst the plants are hardy, the blossom is prone to being damaged by early frosts. Siting gages in a sheltered spot with plenty of sunshine to help that sweet, honey flavour to develop is essential. If you live in a frost-prone area there are varieties which flower later such as ‘Late Transparent’ – wow fruit- naming people you really pushed the boat out with those transparent gages. Some gages are self-fertile, others will require another fruit in order to produce a crop. For this reason it’s worth consulting a specialist fruit nursery if you fancy trying to grow your own.

As for how to eat them. Well their natural sweetness makes them perfect for just as they are but they are an incredibly versatile fruit. Try them in crumbles, pies, jams and chutneys.

I often daydream about having my own orchard. The planting plans always included plums but never greengages. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the orchard but hopefully one day I’ll have the space to squeeze in a gage or two.

 

Scampston Walled Garden

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Scampston Walled Garden

Scampston Walled Garden

I have long been a fan of the garden designer Piet Oudolf. Dutch born Oudolf has championed a new style of planting and landscaping known variously as ‘new European’, ‘new wave’ and ‘new naturalism’. Whatever you want to call it, it has become THE design style of the early 21st century and his ideas of large blocks of perennial planting have captured the imaginations of gardeners, designers and urban landscapers alike. Grasses such as molinias and calamagrostis and rudbeckias, echinacea and heleniums are all classic Oudolf plants. But it’s not just the visual impact of his design and planting style that have made his ideas so popular. His choice of plants, often inspired by the prairies of North America, tend to flower in later summer and autumn. Whereas many of the more traditional English cottage garden plants have given up the ghost by August, gardens planted with these late flowering perennials are just coming into their own. They also leave behind stunning seed heads and skeletons as the garden descends into winter which gave structure and interest. Another attractive feature of these perennials is that they tend to need little attention. Many benefit from the ‘Chelsea chop’ in late May and need dividing every 3 or 4 years but other than that they can be left alone. The other huge plus is that the plants are loved by pollinating insects. In many ways it is a much more sustainable approach to gardening particularly for parks and country houses which used to rely heavily on intensive and expensive bedding schemes.

Piet Oudolf’s style of planting has proved to be hugely popular with urban planners. The mass planting works particularly well on a large-scale where the dramatic effect of large blocks of colour can be seen at their best. Parks and urban areas in Germany, Sweden, the UK and America have all had the Oudolf treatment. Perhaps his most famous and inspirational project to date is the High Line in New York, a public park built on an old railway line raised above the streets of Manhattan.

Painterly planting - Piet Oudolf

Painterly planting – Piet Oudolf

There is something painterly about Oudolf’s designs. The blocks of colour created by sedums, eryngiums and eupatoriums make you feel like you’re looking at a work of art. The first Oudolf planting scheme I saw was at RHS Wisley where he had created his own take on the classic English country garden double herbaceous borders. It was an impressive sight but it was his garden at Pensthorpe Wildlife Reserve in Norfolk which really blew me away.

I’ve wanted to visit Scampston Walled Garden for some time now. Scampston is the largest example in the UK of a privately commissioned Piet Oudolf garden. In 1998 the owners decided to transform the derelict 4 acre walled garden and rather than restore it in a historical way they decided to go for something modern. It’s a brave choice to try to combine the old – a late 18th century Regency house and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown grounds – with something contemporary. For me it worked incredibly well and I loved the combination of old and new.

Katsura Grove

Katsura Grove

The Piet Oudolf area is contained within the walled garden. A path initially takes you around the edge of the garden. Known as Plantsman’s Walk, the high brick walls on one side and tall beech hedges on the other give the impression you’re walking into a maze. Deep borders are filled with hydrangeas, geraniums and the fabulously red wine coloured leaves of Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and the unusual berried Actaea alba. From here a path leads into a series of ‘rooms’ divided by more beech hedges. I particularly loved the Katsura Grove. I had heard of this mythical tree, whose leaves smell of cinder toffee, from my tutor at college but I have never come across them before. You know when you’ve been told something is fantastic and then when you experience it you wonder what all the fuss was about, well I’m please to report I wasn’t disappointed – they really do smell like toffee. Beds were planted with multi-stemmed Katsuras (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) and underplanted with Aster divaricatus. It was a beautiful combination and both plants have gone straight to the top of my ‘plants to buy for my next garden’ list. From here paths lead off into areas with more traditional style borders backed with beech hedging and planted with late summer flowering perennials and grasses. But it was the central perennial meadow which was the showstopper. Divided into quarters with a circular pool at the centre each section is planted with a rich palette of colours punctuated by swaying, tactile grasses. And it was teeming with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Drifts of Grass - Scampston Walled Garden

Drifts of Grass – Scampston Walled Garden

Currently one end of the garden is boarded off. The old glasshouse, in desperate need of restoration has been removed in sections to be repaired with the help of Lottery funding. It will be an impressive sight once completed looking out on to the hub of the garden. It’s a pity more thought isn’t given to construction work on tourist sites though. I remember as a child my dad complaining that wherever we went on holiday in Europe there would always be scaffolding or a crane spoiling the very view we had travelled so far to see. The Italians though had a very nifty idea. They used to – I don’t know if they still do – hang huge canvasses over the building which is being restored. The canvas would have an artist’s impression of the restored building which would hide the worst of the building work. It wasn’t perfect but vastly superior than a lot of plywood and a big blue lottery sign.

Piet Oudolf planting at Scampston Walled Garden

Piet Oudolf planting at Scampston Walled Garden

In contrast to the colour of the perennial meadow the adjoining area consisted of blocks of one type of grass, Molinia caerula ssp caerula ‘Poul Peterson’. It was simple, striking and hugely effective. It was impossible to walk through without stroking the grasses. There are other areas too, a small orchard and kitchen garden and the landscaped grounds which, on this occasion, we didn’t have time to see, but these really are the sideshows to the spectacular centrepiece. Designs, styles and plants come and go in gardening just as they do in fashion and interiors but I think the influence of Oudolf will be around for some time to come. If you can, try to visit one of Piet Oudolf’s gardens or parks – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Racing Away

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raspberries

I’m feeling a little out of control. I’m someone who likes to plan and feel on top of everything but I’m having to accept this year that it just isn’t possible. The garden and allotment are racing away with themselves. One day away is all it takes and I have courgettes morphing into marrows and French beans well over a foot long. These are the same beans that less than 48 hours ago were tiddlers. The fabulous summer weather we’re having is making everything romp away and now we’re past the solstice plants are doing what they need to do to ensure survival – going to seed. Keeping up with the deadheading is a feat in itself. At least the recent rain has meant I haven’t needed to spend time watering.

It’s been a hectic few weeks with work and I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I’d like in the garden or on the plot. Blogging too has been neglected. I think I’m experiencing what might become known as the ‘August Dip’. I remember writing last year about losing my mojo around the same sort of time. A strange wave of apathy seems to descend upon me in August. Maybe it’s just I’ve run out of steam but I’m sure it’s also linked to the feeling that the both the garden and allotment have reached their peak. Once September arrives there’ll be a renewed sense of energy, well I hope so …..

The cut flower patch in August

The cut flower patch in August

The cut flower patch is blooming and it’s a real joy to see it teeming with insects. There was a day last week when I managed to get up there early, it was still and warm already. There was nobody else there. It was sheer bliss and all the effort felt worth it. The patch looks exactly how I wanted it to look. New varieties of flowers I’m trying for the first time elicit excitement when the first buds start to break. Gladioli are in full bloom and I walked back from the plot yesterday with a huge bundle of them. Centaurea americana ‘Aloha Blanca’ and ‘Aloha Rose’ have been great new discoveries for me. They seemed to take forever to open although their buds are so attractive – like botanical filigree – that this wasn’t a bad thing, I was just impatient to see the flower. And they’re fabulous, think huge fluffy thistles.

Centaurea americana 'Aloha Rose'

Centaurea americana ‘Aloha Rose’

On the fruit and veg front it has been a good year. Lettuce ‘Marvel of Four Season’ is my favourite and it has coped well in the face of not much rain. It’s only just starting to bolt, but as the name suggests I can sow now for autumn and winter crops. For once my successional sowing of lettuce has worked although that success might be come to an end if I don’t get sowing my next lot soon.

Centaurea americana in bud

Centaurea americana in bud

Finally after 6 years of tomato disappointment we have our own home-grown ones. Our last tomato success came when we lived in Berkshire. It was a glorious summer with hardly any rain and we had a lovely sun trap where we gathered 15kg off only 6 plants. Ever since we’ve been defeated by either dodgy compost or blight. Having the greenhouse this year has made a huge difference and, so of course, has the weather. Although my nerves have been tested as I agreed to grow tomatoes for a magazine photo shoot. Fortunately the tomatoes survived and the photos are in the can. I can’t say the tomato growing has been a complete triumph though.

Back in March I was sent some plants of a variety called ‘Indigo Rose’. They have been bred especially to have black skins. The idea behind this is that the compounds which give the black colour – anthocyanins – are antioxidants which are believed to be good for us. Oh they looked so promising. The plants grew away strongly and seemed to be very healthy and dark fruit started to form. But they have taken such a long time to ripen and when they have finally looked ready to eat I have been unimpressed. Wellyman summed up their flavour as ‘out of season supermarket’. To be honest I think even that’s being a bit kind. Of course, it could have been something I’ve done, too much water perhaps or not enough feed. Although the simple ‘Tumbler’ tomatoes I picked up as young plants from my local farmers’ market have been grown in the same way and they taste fantastic and they’ve also produced ripe fruit much more quickly. I’m still waiting for fruit from my yellow heritage variety, the name of which escapes me at the moment. I’m just glad I didn’t rely on one variety. I’d have been so disappointed if, in this perfect tomato growing year, the only ones I’d grown were ‘Indigo Rose’. I’d be very interested to hear if anyone else is growing ‘Indigo Rose’ and what they think of the flavour.

Rainbow carrots

Rainbow carrots

I’ve been delighted with my colourful carrots and beetroot. The book ‘Kitchen Garden Experts’ inspired me to grow some even though they weren’t part of my original plans. I thought I’d have enough to plants to grow with the list I needed for my new book but I couldn’t resist. OK, I’m not going to be self-sufficient in carrots – I only have a few large pots on the patio but they look so pretty and taste amazing picked, washed and eaten within minutes. I’ve also been very impressed with the flavour of the pink and white striped Beetroot ‘Chioggia’ which is milder than the dark red varieties and doesn’t make quite such a mess of your kitchen.

I hear a storm is on the way for Sunday so today will be spent staking plants on the plot. They’re promising strong wind and rain. I’m just hoping everything will be standing by Monday. Growing plants for a book is not for the faint-hearted and I’m wondering why I ever suggested I would do it for a second year in a row. Well I do know why, it’s because I love growing but it would be nice if the weather didn’t cause me so many headaches. So, wish me luck and lets hope the weather forecasters have got it wrong.

Irritate or irrigate

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Hozelock Pico Reel

Hozelock Pico Reel

I have a love/hate relationship with hose pipes. I know I’m lucky to be able to have access to a tap on my allotment and to be able to use a hose for watering. The prospect of having to do all the watering with just a can fills me with dread. It can take 3 hours to give the whole plot a thorough soaking. Often, to try to speed up the process I’ll have the hose watering a patch whilst I grab cans filled from a neighbouring plot’s tap. Last week I counted 30 watering can journeys. So, yes, hose pipes are fabulous, a boon to the gardener, a fantastic labour-saving tool…. that is until they develop a mind of their own. You’re standing there watering your fruit/veg/flowers, drifting off into a world of your own, thinking about the long list of things you need to do – the shopping list, the sink that needs unblocking or whatever else that fills your mind at times like this. Then you’re jolted from your dreams by the hose pipe coughing and spluttering. There’s a kink somewhere. So you head off to unkink the kink, the water flows freely once again but just as you return to the nozzle to start watering again it becomes a trickle once again – another kink. Aaaarrrggghhh! I’m sure there are passers-by who wonder what is going on as this increasing irritable allotment holder wanders up and down her plot muttering and possibly swearing at a hose pipe.

The hose at the allotment has developed a leak too. I could gaffer tape it but that would require me remembering to take some with me on my next visit and as I often find myself at the allotment without even secateurs or twine that seems to be asking too much. Instead a fine shower of water sprays my leg as I walk past the raspberries and it has been like this for 2 years now – I know, I know ….

Then there’s my garden hose on a reel. It kinks too and gets trapped on the reel and requires regular unravelling. I’ll admit in previous years I have not watered my garden and pots simply because I couldn’t face having to devote time to wrestling with this hose pipe.

A few months ago I was asked to review some products by the company Hozelock. I’ll admit that I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to the email as at the time I was just about managing to juggle all the plant growing with work and the seemingly endless barrage of emails requesting one thing or another. Then a parcel arrived.

I have spent the last few months using the mini hose pipe ‘Pico Reel’, so thought it was about time to give it a bit of a review. The problem with my old garden hose, which has now been relegated to behind the garden shed, was its size and weight. It was quite bulky, heavy and cumbersome. Because of this it spent a winter outside as there was no more room in my shed to store it and frost damaged the nozzle which meant it would spray out along the length of the nozzle as soon as I turned on the tap.

Hozelock’s new mini hose the ‘Pico Reel’ is much smaller and lighter. It fits neatly against the wall next to the tap and I can carry the whole reel with me as I water which means the hose doesn’t get caught around pots like the old one used to. The downside of a smaller, lighter hose is that it doesn’t reach quite as far as the other and it’s just too short to reach the bottom of my garden – the main hose stretches to 8 metres with an additional 2 metres provided by the section of the hose with the nozzle attached. The bulk of my watering though is the pots scattered around the patio and those in the greenhouse, all of which it reaches easily. It has a handy and easy to use lock which means you can leave the nozzle in a pot slowly watering and go off and do something else, and best of all it hasn’t kinked. It’s funny how the ease of use of a product can really make such a difference to a task. Rather than sitting on the sofa choosing to ignore the plants needing water because I can’t face fighting with a hosepipe, this summer my plants have all received the care they deserve. If you have a small garden, courtyard or balcony this could be the hose pipe for you.

Hozelock Wonderweeder

Hozelock Wonderweeder

The weedkiller applicator, the Wonderweeder, on the other hand was never going to go down well with an organic gardener and this is really where I should have paid more attention to the email.  It works by pouring weedkiller into the long tube via the handle, then, whilst holding the bottom of the pole over a weed you push down the top of the handle where it delivers a shot of the weedkiller. The bottom nozzle is protected by an outer cover of plastic so that the spray is confined to a small area. Personally I would rather dig out a weed than kill it with a chemical but I tried the product using just water to see how easy it was to use. There’s a small cap inside the handle which allows for measuring of the liquid although it wasn’t very clear to me how I was meant to distinguish between the different amounts. It also required quite a few pushes initially before anything actually happened. If you do use weedkillers the advantages of this product are that with its long handle there’s no need to bend down and it targets the weed and doesn’t spray a wider area. I’ve seen too many trigger happy weedkiller users in the past with little regard for what they are actually spraying so this is a useful feature. My concern though is it does dribble between sprays so you would need to watch what you’re doing when moving between different weeds, otherwise you might inadvertently splash other plants or your feet.

Off the Beaten Track – Cornish Gardens

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Penlee Point allotments

Penlee Point allotments

Cornwall’s mild climate means a whole host of plants from around the world can grow happily there. Most visitors are drawn to the National Trust gardens, Eden and Heligan but if you look beyond these there are other places where you can get a plant fix too.

Driving along the coast road from Newlyn to Mousehole I spotted the tops of bamboo canes clearly arranged to provide support for runner beans and a glimpse of some allotments. Later that evening we came back to take a closer look at the plots perched on the cliff with views out towards St Michael’s Mount. It must be incredible to grow here, with the sound of the sea below, although I’m sure the salt-laden winds pose problems and I’d be a little worried about coastal erosion. Further up the coast at Praa Sands this winter’s storms had taken their toll, worryingly so for the homeowners whose gardens were creeping ever closer to the edge. Even so I loved these plots and their quirky scarecrows created from all manner of salvaged finds.

Loving this scarecrow

Loving this scarecrow

It’s unusual to find houses which come with a garden in the tiny fishing villages which dot the Cornish coast. That might explain the extraordinary waiting time to take for an allotment in this area, which according to the Penzance Town Council website ranges between 5 and 9 years. And, rather than devote more land to allotments the council have decided to divide any plots which become available into two in the hope this will tackle the waiting list. When a patch of land does come with a house it’s clearly much appreciated. This row of gardens, in Mousehole, were squeezed into a strip of land above the sea and separated from their houses by a quiet road. As gardens go they are tiny and exposed to whatever the weather throws at them, but it was heart-warming to see how they were clearly precious to their owners.

Coastal gardens in Mousehole

Coastal gardens in Mousehole

On our final day we decided to slowly make our way home rather than heading straight back. Our first stop was Kestle Barton. We’d picked up a leaflet for the place the previous day in St Ives and thought it might be worth a visit. Billed as a rural arts centre it was the garden designed by James Alexander Sinclair which persuaded us to divert there. This isn’t the sort of place which you are just passing by. A combination of directions on the leaflet and Google Maps directed us down ever narrower country lanes until we eventually found ourselves at the end of the road and our destination. When Karen Townshend, ex-wife of The Who’s Pete Townshend, came across these old farm buildings dating back to the 19th century they had been untouched by modern agriculture and were crumbling into a state of ruin. Now they have been stunningly and sympathetically restored to provide an exhibition space and self-catering accommodation.

Kestle Barton

Kestle Barton

From the barn you walk out into a south-facing garden with bold drifts of herbaceous flowers and grasses. The scent from the mass planting of the lavender was divine and the sight of the vast meadow teeming with bees and butterflies was a delight. I’ve since discovered that the surrounding farm land is managed with the environment in mind. Tree planting projects, a commercial walnut nuttery, an orchard of Cornish apple, cherry and plum varieties and organic principles all form part of a plan to show how farming can adapt to climate change. Small field boundaries are being restored and native hedgerows planted. I love the ethos and if the wildlife in the meadow was anything to go by the environmental principles are working. As an arts centre though I’m not so sure. The space here was perhaps too small – just one barn –  and the handful of images weren’t very well presented. Maybe on another day with another exhibition it might have been different. As for the garden, well I think it could be the real attraction here. James Alexander Sinclair’s design and plants work so well in the setting and I loved what was there. It was what wasn’t there that was the problem – I didn’t understand why there were so many patches of bare soil. It looked like some plants had died or that the garden hadn’t yet filled out. It seems that the garden was planted in 2010 so maybe it just needs a bit longer to become established. Kestle Barton could be such a fantastic place, I really hope it can just find that extra oomph to take it there.

The Potager Garden Cafe

The Potager Garden Cafe

Our next stop was The Potager Garden about 20 minutes from Falmouth, tucked away in amongst the creeks of the Helford River. I’d spotted this place a few years ago in a weekend newspaper but we had never got round to visiting. It was Wellyman who remembered that we weren’t too far away and it would be perfect for a spot of lunch. An abandoned nursery, glasshouses and grounds have been lovingly restored to provide an idyllic setting in which to eat, drink and relax. There were hammocks in shady corners, table tennis, and packs of cards and dominoes dotted about. You know those sorts of places where you feel like they can’t wait to get rid of you, well this wasn’t one of them – they actually want you to linger here. And what a place to while away a few hours. The plants which were once nursery stock have become established plants. Many were growing through their pots into the ground when the site was rediscovered after ten years of neglect. The idea has been to create gardens which are both attractive and productive and they’ve succeeded. I knew the food would be good but it was a real surprise that the gardens were so beautiful too.

The Potager Garden Cafe and its gardens

The Potager Garden Cafe and its gardens

I’d love to hear about your own off the beaten track garden discoveries.

 

Gardening Leave

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Mousehole and Mallow

Mousehole and Mallow

It wasn’t perhaps the best time for a bit of a break but the other week we popped down to Cornwall for a few days. Ideally I wouldn’t leave my plot, garden, greenhouse and ever-growing number of pots in late June, but it was Wellyman’s birthday and we both needed to see the sea.

The rigmarole of making sure everything survives whilst I’m away does sometimes make me wonder whether it’s worth it. I’m reluctant to ask neighbours and friends to look after the plants because I know that can be a bit of a pressure for some, especially if they don’t have ‘green fingers’ or it’s very dry and they have enough of their own plants to cosset. I did once leave lots of emerging seedlings in a friend’s greenhouse but slugs got to some of the plants. I felt bad for my friend who clearly had been worried about the whole thing. She’d rushed out to get organic slug pellets and I think had dreaded my return and having to break the news. Now that I need plants for photo shoots I’d rather leave it up to me, then at least I’ve only got myself to blame if they shrivel and die. It does of course mean trying to make sure everything will get enough water, and it’s surprising how quickly pots and plants on a sunny windowsill can dry out, even if you’re only away for 4 days.

Porthcurno

Porthcurno

The prolonged dry spell we’d had prompted us to hunt out the irrigation system gathering dust in a cupboard, which we bought 8 years ago but never got around to using. It’s a straightforward hose with sprinkler attachments and timer on the tap. The fiddly bit is getting the water to soak into the compost and not to spray everything else – greenhouse windows, paving, me. We spent a few days adjusting the settings and initially massively over-estimated how long we’d need to leave the timer on. Bearing in mind the water only trickles out we thought 10 minutes would be about right. It turns out this would have drowned them and 2 minutes was more than sufficient. Pots were gathered together in a shady spot and given a good soaking, windowsill seed trays were given a base of sodden kitchen roll, and the plot and garden were treated to a mammoth watering session.

Ironically by the time we set off it looked like we needn’t have bothered with all the watering. It seemed we’d time our get away with the glorious weather coming to an end as we headed into mist and gloom hanging over Devon and I shivered in my shorts and tshirt. Wellyman, always one to put a positive spin on life, said at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the plants drying out…….

Breaking up the journey we called in to see the lovely Becca and Maz at The Garden Gate Flower Company near Fowey. We met through Twitter and it was lovely to meet them in the flesh. I’m very jealous of their flower farm perched on a hill with the sea only minutes away surrounded by beautiful flowers, incredibly photogenic outbuildings and their polytunnel. After a few hours of wonderful flowery-chat we left them to tend their roses and continued on to the fantastically named Mousehole, pronounced by locals as ‘Mauzal’. It’s a classic Cornish fishing village with whitewashed cottages, tiny narrow lanes and a pretty harbour. And what’s more the sun came out. With all the technology at their finger tips the weather forecasters could have only got our four days in Cornwall more wrong if they had suggested it would snow. As it turned out the predicted four days of rain turned into glorious sunshine from start to finish.

A detour to Constantine Bay, near Padstow, on the way home.

A detour to Constantine Bay, near Padstow, on the way home.

We got to marvel at glistening turquoise waters, white sandy beaches, watched gannets plunge into the Atlantic and were delighted by the seal which popped up at Sennen Cove just as the sun was setting. The water was so clear at St Ives we watched as a seal swam torpedo-like under water to join a group of surfers. We chased it the length of the beach watching it come up with crabs in its mouth. It would disappear for a few minutes and we would scour the surface of the water waiting to see its head bob up again. I’ve seen seals in the past but generally they have been from boat trips to specific seal colonies. Great as these are there’s something much more special about these chance encounters we had.

I have never been to Land’s End, mainland Britain’s most westerly point. We have been close enough before but I’ve always been put off by the visitor attraction which has sprung up on this spot. I’d rather celebrate the dramatic beauty of this coastline by enjoying the peace and tranquility of the place rather than spend it at a petting zoo or being treated to tales of Arthurian legend. Something made me want to see the actual Land’s End though and I’m so glad we did because whether you want to pay to see a 4D movie or stare out to sea for free there’s the space for both types of visitor to co-exist.

Land's End

Land’s End

We took the coastal path out of Sennen and walked a well trodden path along the cliffs for a few miles. The view was spectacular with the Isles of Scilly just visible on the horizon and the Longships lighthouse a mile out to sea. Sea thrift was fading but wild carrot was putting on an impressive show and there were choughs soaring above us. A red beaked and legged member of the crow family this is a rare bird with, it’s estimated, only 250-350 breeding pairs in the UK . Colonies exist in North Wales and Scotland but it’s with Cornwall that this bird is synonymous, featuring as it does on the county’s coat of arms along with a tin miner and a fisherman. But for nearly 30 years, from the 1970s to the start of the new millennium, choughs were absent from Cornwall – the population whittled down over the centuries by trophy hunters and changes to their habitat until their were none. Then a pair, believed to be from Brittany, set up home in Cornwall in 2001 and successfully bred and choughs returned to Cornwall.

And, of course there were plants but I think I’ll save those for the next post.

Day Dreaming Gardens

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Wood carved tree spirit

Wood carved tree spirit

According to research published over the last few years daydreaming is good for us. Drifting off into space used to be frowned upon, think of the classic scenario of the child being shouted at by their teacher for staring out of the classroom window when he/she should be answering some question on algebra. And, just as night-time dreams allow our subconscious to filter the information our brains have been exposed to during the day, it appears that daydreaming can also play an important role in learning and creativity. But, opportunities for reverie are becoming harder to find now, every waking moment is filled with some electronic device making demands on our attention. Bus or train journeys in particular used to allow for a spot of daydreaming, staring out as the world passed by. Now look around on you on one of these trips and everyone has their heads bent, eyes glued to screens of varying sizes and fingers silently sweeping by the information at their tips. Does anyone daydream any more? Well I do, admittedly this has something to do with living in a rural IT black-spot. Forget 4G, 3G would be a start. Instead of tweeting whilst I’m on a bus or train I find myself lost in my own world. Inevitably these are thoughts about work and life in general – maybe that’s why we’re all so keen to distract ourselves with Twitter, it’s more appealing than having to think about those decisions we need to make once we’re grown-ups. But, and here’s the good bit, quite a lot of the time I daydream about gardening.

Pot storage

Pot storage

Stanton Court is a garden I would describe as a daydream garden. We visited it the other weekend where it was one of twenty private gardens in the Cotswold village of Stanton that had opened to raise money for charity through the NGS. Stanton is a quintessential English village but what was really remarkable was the lack of encroachment of modern life. Looking out over the High Street from the viewpoint of one of the gardens it was striking how uncluttered it all was – no signs, no road markings, no telephone or electricity cables.

Stanton village

Stanton village

Stanton Court

Stanton Court

I thought twenty gardens in just over three hours was a little on the ambitious side so was planning to select a few must-sees, Wellyman however saw it as a challenge. We did end up seeing all twenty and went back to one of them for a second viewing but there was a touch of garden fatigue by the end of the day. The garden we revisited was Stanton Court. For me it stood out as something special. It’s easy to think that would be no surprise as the house and gardens are currently for sale for the eye-watering price of £11 million. Money doesn’t always equal good taste though, you only have to see some of the items for sale at Chelsea to realise that. The garden could have been quite bling and ‘footballer’s wife’ for that sort of price tag but it was beautiful, and I could quite easily have spent all afternoon wandering around this place. The long driveway led past an imposing manor house, built in the 17th century, and tantalised us as to what was beyond. The planting outside the staff quarters was beautiful, there were the greenhouses packed with plants and an interesting collection of cacti and succulents. Is it just me who finds other people’s sheds and greenhouses so interesting? They seem to escape the tidying up frenzy that engulfs a garden which opens to the public and they give a fascinating insight into the gardener, the tools they use, whether they’re organic or not and the plant collections close to their heart.

Stanton village church and meadows

Stanton village church and meadow

A path from the greenhouses led us to a kitchen garden. Elements were newly planted but it was easy to see how enchanting this place will be when it’s in full production. Of course I loved the inclusion of cut flowers to this area and the blackberry trained up and over an arch over one of the paths. Then there was a glimpse through a wrought iron gate to the most idyllic of views – a meadow of ox-eye daisies with the village church in the background. The meadow opened on to an expanse of manicured lawn and a pond and another path led off into a rose garden. I’ve seen a few roses garden over the years and I tend to find they promise so much more than they ever deliver. I want blowsy flowers in profusion, heady scents lingering in the air, an overwhelming sense of rosiness. Generally it’s scrawny looking plants clinging on to life and flowers that don’t even smell. Why, why, why would you ever plant a rose that didn’t smell? This time though I wasn’t disappointed – Stanton Court’s rose garden was dreamy.

Classic English border

Classic English border

Chelsea gold-medal winner Rupert Golby has been instrumental in creating a garden at Stanton Court which I think sits happily in its surroundings and compliments the buildings. I’m sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps a bit twee or chocolate-boxy for those who would like something more challenging, more cutting edge. For me it was simply a garden where I wanted to spend more time. It had all the elements I daydream about when thinking of my perfect garden …. well, apart from a sea view. Of course I’m well aware of the reality of owning such a garden. A space this size, there are 62 acres which come with the house, would require a certain number of staff. For me it would defeat the object of having such an amazing garden if I had to work long hours doing something else to pay staff to do the gardening. And how much compost and manure would a garden this size need? The mind boggles.

Plantign outside the staff quarters

Planting outside the staff quarters

I loved this small gravel garden

I loved this small gravel garden

That’s the great thing about daydreaming. Much as I loved Stanton Court I’m not so sure I would actually want the responsibility of owning and maintaining somewhere so vast. Of course I wouldn’t say no if someone offered it to me but I was more than happy enough to spend an afternoon there just noseying about. And now I can add a gravel garden to my garden daydreaming.

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