A Show of Hands

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Show of Hands

Show of Hands – Chelsea Fringe

I have been meaning to take part in Veg Plotting’s brilliant project dedicated to the hardest working part of most gardeners – their hands –  for the last few weeks but I keep getting distracted, generally by gardening. It appears though that I have managed to sneak in my contribution just before the project ends. A ‘Show of Hands’ is part of the Chelsea Fringe, a festival entirely run by volunteers, which celebrates the quirkier, edgier side of horticulture. It runs during May into June and coincides with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The idea of the Fringe is to show that gardening and growing are open to anyone. Gardening does have a reputation for being the preserve of the older generation and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show creates a certain air of exclusivity. The Fringe wants to turn those thoughts on their head. The first Chelsea Fringe took place in 2012 and it’s proved hugely popular. This year there have been over 250 projects with events not just in London but in other UK cities and even further afield in Europe.

Michelle asked people to post up a photo of hands in the context of gardening. It didn’t have to be their own, they didn’t even have to be human. Anna, for instance, on her Green Tapestry blog, posted an image of a sculpture depicting hands which she came across in the gardens of Sudeley Castle. All manner of social media has been put to use with people participating using Twitter, Facebook and blogging. Once the Fringe for 2014 draws to a close, on 8th June, Michelle will create a map showing where all the images have originated.

So, for my contribution Wellyman took a photograph of me holding a bunch of flowers picked from the cut flower patch. It gets you thinking when you focus on something. I probably take my hands for granted. They are so fundamental in my gardening, and writing about gardening; I really should look after them more. I don’t moisturize enough, I’m normally so tired when I get into bed that I forget. But I do have a degree of vanity when it comes to their ‘maintenance’ – I do try to keep my nails looking nice.  I rarely garden with gloves. I should wear them more – it would certainly make cleaning them at the end of the day much easier but I find them cumbersome. It’s impossible to sow or take cuttings wearing them so I might start wearing them but inevitably once I have removed them for one task I forget where I’ve put them. My one concession is if I’m planting or weeding in the garden as I’d rather not put my hand in a pile of cat mess.

Increasingly I suffer from allergic reactions to plants. Borage brings me out in a nasty rash and last year during a spot of weeding I discovered echiums and I don’t seem to like each other. My hands were quite a sight, covered in weals and burning like I had never experienced before. It wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if I hadn’t had a photo shoot the next day where my hands would be captured for posterity. Thanks to the wonders of antihistamines my hands were restored to normal by the morning, which is just as well as I think there’s only so much you can do with Photoshop.

I chose this picture because it sums up how much my hands mean to me. They give me the chance to grow beautiful flowers which give pleasure to me, my family and friends. The hands which sow and grow so many plants allow me to also write about my passion for plants. When I think about it they really are fantastic.

Thanks to Michelle for such an inspired idea. If you’d like to join in there’s still time.

Frustration and Inspiration

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Lettuce 'Freckles'

Lettuce ‘Freckles’

My computer bit the dust the other day. It didn’t come as a great surprise, it hasn’t sounded healthy for a while now. The noise it was generating had become so loud I couldn’t concentrate, it was like I had an old diesel car under the desk. I had hoped it might limp on for a few more months and Wellyman had replaced a few parts. Then it took to shutting down without being asked to, but the final straw was the chequerboard screen of pinks and yellows which looked like a punk Harris Tweed – I knew then that the game was up.

I’m not a complete technophobe but getting a new computer is such a faff, why you would do it voluntarily I don’t know. We’d had this one for ten years and it’s incredible how much stuff ended up on it. All I can say is that thanks to Wellyman I’m up and running again but if it had been left to me, well I wouldn’t have known where to start. I’m embarrassed and frustrated by this. I’m generally a practical, can-do type of woman but when it comes to IT I can get by but if anything out of the ordinary happens, well I’m stuck. It’s rather worrying that so much of life is becoming ever dependent on technology that requires the brain and dexterity of a teenager to get through all the setting up stages and glitches that inevitably appear. And don’t get me started on the thought process behind the creation of Windows 8.1. It took 20 minutes and a phone call to Wellyman to find out what they’d done with spell check. Still at least the new computer is quiet – I barely know it’s on as it purrs gently like the most contented of cats. The Welly household must be a bit of a technology black spot at the moment as my ‘not so smart’ smartphone keeps having a hissy fits too. This particular problem has left even Wellyman, who spends his working days fixing IT problems, perplexed.

Green and red mizuna seedlings

Green and red mizuna seedlings

At times like this I crave a simpler life. The closest I’m going to get to getting away from it all, for the moment anyway, is escaping to the allotment. There can’t be many better antidotes to the frustrations of modern life than a few hours weeding, tying in sweet peas and picking flowers. There’s a simplicity to growing which is good for the spirit which might explain why I have got a bit carried away this year with my growing. When I took on the allotment the plan was to keep all the veg growing there. It’s funny though how there is no longer enough space there for my ambitions and veg crops are now creeping into the garden again. Part of this is can be attributed to the idea that we may not have a plot or garden at all next year if we move so I’m going all out this year for a bountiful summer.

Kitchen Garden Experts

Kitchen Garden Experts

Inspiration has also come in the form of a book I bought a few weeks ago called Kitchen Garden Experts. It’s the creation of Jason Ingram, who took the photographs for my own book, and his wife, garden writer and editor, Cinead McTernan. They travelled the length and breadth of the country last year photographing the kitchen gardens of some of our top restaurants and picking the brains of the chefs and the gardeners who provide them with top-notch produce. I’ve found it a fabulous read. A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet one of the growers included in the book, Jo Campbell, who at the time was growing fruit and vegetables for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Talking to her about how they work with the chefs to decide what to grow, how they can make the most of the produce when it’s brought to the kitchen and how they’re always looking for new crops, whether that’s seeking out inspiration from other countries or rediscovering forgotten native foodstuffs, was fascinating. It’s this relationship between the chef and grower which is the basis for this book.

Vallum Farm - Kitchen Garden Experts

Vallum Farm – Kitchen Garden Experts

Kitchen Garden Experts cleverly combines two topics close to many of our hearts – food and growing. It’s a combination of restaurant guide and gardening and recipe book. You could easily use this book as the basis for a foodie pilgrimage to top eateries but it’s not short on horticultural information. Cinead has packed it full of tips and techniques gleaned from experienced growers. I liked, grower for The River Cafe, Simon Hewitt’s policy of growing tomatoes originating from northern Italy as they are more adapted to our own cooler growing conditions. Dan Cox of L’Enclume in Cumbria recommends placing your veg crops into a bucket of cold water as you harvest, it helps to preserve their freshness, especially on a hot day, and makes cleaning easier once you get them to the kitchen. I will certainly be consulting the book when I make future seed orders, seeking out the recommended varieties, and growing home-grown sea kale sounds an intriguing prospect. But for now it has inspired a few last-minute pots of colourful carrots – purples and yellows, some yellow heritage tomatoes, which I might just squeeze into the greenhouse, and a sowing of stripey beetroot ‘Chioggia’.

The Star Inn, Harome - Kitchen Garden Experts

The Star Inn at Harome – Kitchen Garden Experts

The recipes range from the simple but delicious sounding rocket pesto, squash soup and plum and almond flan to the dinner party type wet garlic barigoule and leeks vinaigrette. There are some recipes I probably wouldn’t attempt, but even these recipes provide inspiration in the form of flavour combinations and crops I’d like to try to grow in the future.

What I really loved about Kitchen Garden Experts is how it encapsulates how far British food has come in the last 10 to 15 years. Once derided by our European neighbours for our poor quality produce and indifferent restaurants we now have world-class eateries, chefs and artisan food. We’re learning to care about seasonality and appreciate the effort which goes into quality food production. Jason’s photographs are incredibly beautiful, not just capturing the stunning food but also a sense of place for each of the kitchen gardens. If his photographs don’t have you drooling your way to the kitchen, reaching for the seed catalogue or picking up the phone to book a table at one of the restaurants I don’t know what will.

 

Chelsea inspirations

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Rose-bud Gorilla by Pollyfields - Chelsea 2014   ©2014 Ian Curley

Rose-bud Gorilla by Pollyfields – Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

Chelsea Flower Show is packed with so much to see that it’s a bit hard to take it all in when you’re actually there. Scrolling through the photos once I got home and seeing the coverage on TV always makes me wish I could pop back for another visit to soak it all up in a slightly less frantic way.

Khora conservatory - Chelsea 2014 Rose-bud Gorilla by Pollyfields - Chelsea 2014  ©2014 Ian Curley

Khora conservatory – Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

Where else would you see an orang-utan, a rose-bud encrusted gorilla, a £200,000 conservatory, bump into Christopher Biggins and see World War One commemorated with plants? The person dressed up as an orang-utan wandering around the World Vision garden seemed a bit random. The attention to detail on the rose-bud gorilla was incredible – there was a lavender elephant too – but I did wonder how anyone would have the patience to create such sculptures and whilst they smelt amazing, I couldn’t work out who would buy one. That’s a thought which quite often creeps into your head at Chelsea. As spectacular as the Khora dome-roofed conservatory was it’s hard to imagine who would part with £200,000 for such a building. But those hospitality tents at Chelsea aren’t there just to feed and water the plant lovers who visit over the course of the week. As Ed Cumming’s wrote last year in The Telegraph, Chelsea has become a place for big businesses, politicians and dignitaries to network. Who knows, perhaps Khora’s order book will be full by the end of the week.

The House of Fraser Textile Garden - Chelsea 2014  ©2014 Ian Curley

The House of Fraser Textile Garden – Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

The Fresh Gardens are smaller spaces with a more contemporary feel. The’ In the Mind’s Eye’ Garden for the RNIB was fantastic. Designed as a sensory garden it had water, textural planting and vibrant colours. The colour combinations in some of the borders might not appeal to everyone as there was a lot going on but it was designed with those with visual impairments in mind where extra colours and contrast are important. I was so pleased this won ‘Best in Show’ in its category. The quirky House of Fraser Garden really caught my eye. I loved the colours on display and the idea that textile design can be inspired by nature.

Silene diocia 'Firefly' - Chelsea 2014  ©2014 Ian Curley

Silene diocia ‘Firefly’ – Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

In the Great Pavilion I came across this beauty, Silene diocia ‘Firefly’. I wonder if it would make a good cut flower?

Heucheraholis - Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

Heucheraholis – Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

I thought the Heucheraholics stand commemorating the First World War was outstanding.

The Hillier’s exhibit was something else. They take their displays at Chelsea to another level with trees as tall as the pavilion and so many plants packed into their space it was quite breathtaking.

Floral dresses - Chelsea 2014  ©2014 Ian Curley

Floral dresses – Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

The Chelsea Florist of the Year competition and the row of dresses decorated with flowers and plant material was really inspiring and I took an epic amount of photos of the incredible detail.

Chelsea 2014  ©2014 Ian Curley

Chelsea 2014 ©2014 Ian Curley

And who could resist a photo on this cutie? He was one of the dogs brought in to check the showground for explosives before the Queen arrived. Tail wagging, he was lead into the gardens sniffing for anything untoward. They’re obviously trained to not to eat anything they shouldn’t. Imagine if they got a rogue dog in one year who took a fancy to some violas or who cocked his leg on a box ball.

My favourite part of Chelsea has to be the Serpentine Walk in a leafy area where you’ll find the Artisan Gardens. In this quiet secluded spot it’s much easier to appreciate the gardens and plants. I wish the RHS would devote a separate space to the Fresh Gardens. In my opinion, the Fresh Gardens suffer from being just off Main Avenue in front of the Great Pavilion – there’s just so much competing for your attention. It’s often hard to know what’s a garden and what’s a trade stand. I thought the planting on Jo Thompson’s ‘Town Square’ Garden was so beautiful but it all got rather lost in amongst the giant potpourri animals and expensive barbecues. How different it would have been if Jo’s garden had been placed in a similar setting to the Artisan Gardens.

So that’s it for another year but there’s plenty for me to take away from Chelsea 2014. I’ll be seeking out plum and wine coloured flowers for my cutting patch next year. I’m hoping to take inspiration from the floral dresses for the book I’m working on and, thanks to Mr Kazuyuki, I want to learn more about Japanese gardens.

On Show

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© 2014 Ian Curely

© 2014 Ian Curley

Of all the RHS flower shows it is Chelsea where the gardens feature the most prominently. For some people they receive too much attention with reams of copy in the newspapers and the seemingly endless dissecting on TV. I have to admit that I do find certain elements of the coverage veers towards navel gazing and pretentiousness but I think this is inevitable when garden designers are discussing their contemporaries. It’s not just gardening which is guilty of this. Take a look at some of the food programmes on the TV at the moment and you’ll see the strange phenomenon whereby chefs are achieving a god-like status. And does anyone actually manage to sit through more than 10 minutes of any of those awards ceremonies without feeling nauseous? For me though, the gardens make Chelsea special.

The show gardens along Main Avenue are the starry element to the event. These are the haute couture of the gardening world. For most of us they are fantasy gardens but not for everybody. The Nancy Dell’Olio lookalike who stood next to me as we both looked towards The Telegraph Garden proceeded to tell the retinue around her that her own garden would look pretty much exactly like this by the end of the summer. It’s easy to dismiss these gardens as purely window dressing just as many do with catwalk fashion but just as the clothes we wear are influenced by the top fashion designers, their ideas filtering down to the high street, so do the trends, designs and plants used in the show gardens. I do shudder at the thought of how much money is spent on the large gardens but Chelsea has become a shop window for the best in British garden design.

I think the controversy that’s sparked every year when the medals are announced is fantastic. Why did so-and-so get a silver-gilt and not a gold, particularly when what’s-he-called got Best in Show? If the judges award more than 5 golds they’re being too generous, any less and they’re being too strict. I feel desperately for anyone who receives a silver or, even worse, a bronze. All that hard work and then you have to put on the brave face and say the medal doesn’t matter because the public love it. In reality we all know that if you go to all the trouble of putting yourself forward to design a garden you want silver-gilt at the very least. Or is that just my competitive streak talking?

Patrick Collins' 'A Garden for First Touch at St George's' - Chelsea 2014

Patrick Collins’ ‘A Garden for First Touch at St George’s’ – Chelsea 2014 © 2014 Ian Curley

I thought there was a lot to like about this year’s Chelsea gardens. Patrick Collins’ ‘A Garden for First Touch at St. George’s Hospital’ used the old rock bank and I loved the contrast his garden, built on a slope, provided to the relative flatness of the other show gardens. The planting was stunning, as was the use of the rusty steel, and it was one of the gardens which I felt offered realistic inspiration to your average gardener.

Matthew Childs’ Brewin Dolphin Garden received a silver-gilt but I really can’t see why he didn’t get a gold. Beautiful planting, stunning features and a joy to look at.

Cleve West's M&G Garden

Cleve West’s M&G Garden. I love it from this angle. © 2014 Ian Curley

I’m a huge fan of Cleve West and was hugely looking forward to seeing his Persian inspired garden for M&G. Strangely though the garden didn’t have the impact I thought it would. It was beautifully executed and had fabulous planting but the front part of the garden which represented the dry, arid areas of the Iranian landscape slightly jarred. The odd thing was when I got home and looked through Wellyman’s photos it all seemed to work. Wellyman and I both came to the conclusion that the garden worked as a whole when viewed from certain points but not others.

The Rich brothers and their 'A Night Sky Garden' - Chelsea 2014'

The Rich brothers and their ‘A Night Sky Garden’ – Chelsea 2014′ © 2014 Ian Curley

The Rich brothers designed a fantastic artisan garden last year so I was looking forward to seeing their first show garden and I wasn’t disappointed. They take their inspiration from the landscape around their home in the Brecon Beacons, a place I know well. I loved the natural planting, the lack of bling and the idea that the garden will be used after Chelsea at an autistic centre in Cardiff.

The Telegraph Garden - Chelsea 2014

The Telegraph Garden – Chelsea 2014 – I like the shot of colour here from Gladiolus byzantinus. © 2014 Ian Curley

The Telegraph Garden just didn’t do it for me, it was just too slick for my liking. Everyone seemed so taken with the pristine lawn but it just looked so green it could have been fake. Aren’t these types of lawns a little old-fashioned now anyway – a monoculture needing way too much attention, often of the chemical kind, and offering no real benefits to our native wildlife? Of all the gardens it felt the most corporate, the one which would appeal most to a city banker. It’s the type of garden I’d like to see less of at Chelsea. The geometric layout of Luciano Giubbilei’s Laurent Perrier Garden didn’t appeal but the planting was superb. A cool palette of creams, lemons and greens provided a nice contrast to the berry colours of reds and purples in evidence elsewhere.

Anchusa azurea 'Loddon Royalist' - Chelsea 2014 © 2014 Ian Curley

Anchusa azurea ‘Loddon Royalist’ – Chelsea 2014 © 2014 Ian Curley

And that takes me to a point that has slightly niggled me for the last few years. The similarity in planting really can’t be a coincidence. Last year you couldn’t get stirred for cow parsley. Now I love a bit of frothy planting but I wouldn’t expect to see it on every garden. This year it was the turn of irises, aquilegia and Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais’. I know it’s spring and there are certain plants which are at their best now but the fact that the same plants, in the same colours turn up on different gardens is just a bit odd. Perhaps not so odd when you see that the gardens which shared the similar planting were all supplied by the same plant nursery. In the past it has been dismissed as ‘great minds think alike’ but, at last, Joe Swift suggested last night on the TV that it might well have something to do with nurseries presenting the designers with plants that will be at their peak for Chelsea week. The plum and claret colours I saw this year were really inspirational and I’m already thinking about ways I can incorporate them into my cut flower patch but perhaps for the gardens to be truly distinctive the issue of plant suppliers needs to be addressed.

 

 

Hot, Hot, Hot – Chelsea 2014

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Aquilegia stellata 'Ruby Port'

Aquilegia stellata ‘Ruby Port’ (copyright Ian Curley)

Following on from the theme of my last post, May really wouldn’t be May without the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and that’s where I found myself yesterday.

Chelsea induces in me the levels of excitement you normally witness in children in the run up to Christmas. This plant extravaganza is, for me, the equivalent of a sea of presents under the Christmas tree. Perhaps this will explain my inability to get much sleep the night before. Strange sounds coming from the kitchen of the bed and breakfast didn’t help. To my sleep deprived brain it sounded like the frantic spoon-clearing of a yoghurt pot. There was a point when I lay there thinking, ‘I’m staying in some complete stranger’s house and how do I know they don’t have some odd midnight yoghurt eating craving’, until Wellyman pointed out it was just their dog lapping up water from its bowl!!!

Last year was my first visit to Chelsea. To say I was chuffed when I received a pass for Monday’s Press Day was an understatement. Unfortunately, the shine wore off rather quickly as I wandered around the show ground. There were mutterings and grumbles from the assembled crowd that the RHS was playing it safe with the designs it had picked and that the planting was lacklustre. The latter was no real surprise after last year’s very cold spring and it all left me thinking I hadn’t seen Chelsea at its best.

Sultry planting was a theme at Chelsea 2014

Sultry planting was a theme at Chelsea 2014 (copyright Ian Curley)

But what a difference a year can make – Chelsea 2014 felt like a different place. I’m sure this had a lot to do with the weather. Last year I was nithered (Geordie for bloody freezing). The grey, laden skies made everything look quite flat, and photography in the Great Pavilion was difficult because of the low light levels. Yesterday with blue skies and baking sunshine everything seemed to sparkle. It was almost as if the designers had an inkling it might be a scorcher with water features incorporated into several gardens and rich, sultry planting that seemed just perfect for the conditions.

It wasn’t just the weather though that had made the difference. Apart from a couple of well-known designers, the RHS had chosen to champion some younger horticultural talent and I really feel it needed this. There has been a tendency over the years for designers to create show gardens which I’m sure appeal to very wealthy potential clients but leave me feeling ambivalent. I rarely dislike them and I can see the skill involved in the creation but I just don’t connect with them. They feel very much like status symbol gardens and a tad formulaic with the pre-requisite finely cut hard landscaping, uncomfortable looking furniture and a building of some description that tends to dominate the whole space. There were inevitably still elements of that yesterday and I’m realistic enough to realise that Chelsea has become much more than a stage for plants but I felt there was a much better balance this time.

Help for Heroes 'Hope on the Horizon' garden - Chelsea 2014

Help for Heroes ‘Hope on the Horizon’ garden – Chelsea 2014 (copyright Ian Curley)

Just as it’s hard to cover the whole of the show in the 6 or so hours I spent there – I’ll watch the TV coverage when I get home and wonder how I managed to miss a particular exhibit or newly introduced plant – it’s impossible to cover the day in one post so there’ll be a few posts over the course of the week. But, for now, here are a few of my highlights from Chelsea 2014.

The sultry colours of Lysimachia atropurpurea ‘Beaujolais’, Aquilegia vulgairs var. stellata ‘Black Barlow’ and ‘Ruby Port’, Sangiusorba menziesii and Rosa ‘Darcy Bussell’.

Brewin Dolphin Garden  - Chelsea 2014

Brewin Dolphin Garden – Chelsea 2014 (copyright Ian Curley)

Choosing a favourite show garden this year is difficult but I think it would have to be the Brewin Dolphin garden designed by Matthew Childs. The copper archways with the verdigris patina were stunning and gave the garden the wow factor without that element of bling that can so often be the focus of a show garden. The planting was a superb mix and included my favourite combination of Lysimachia ‘Beaujolais and Aquilegia ‘Ruby Port’. The Help for Heroes ‘Hope on the Horizon’ garden designed by 29 year old Matt Keightley came a close second. I loved the dappled light created by the hornbeam trees and the shade they cast worked incredibly well in the strong sunlight. Another favourite was the Royal Bank of Canada Waterscape Garden by Hugo Bugg who, at the age of 26, has become the youngest winner of a gold medal at Chelsea.

Royal Bank of Canada Waterscape Garden - Chelsea 2014

Royal Bank of Canada Waterscape Garden – Chelsea 2014 (copyright Ian Curley)

Can anyone have enough bun moss? Well not if you’re Kazuyuki Ishihara, designer of the Best in Show Artisan Garden. His ‘Paradise on Earth’ garden was truly stunning. The attention to detail is incredible and he always packs so much into his designs I could stand and look at them for hours marvelling at the intricacy.

A Paradise on Earth by Ishihara Kazuyuki

A Paradise on Earth by Ishihara Kazuyuki (copyright Ian Curley)

Away from the show gardens of Main Avenue the rustic feel and stunning planting of ‘The Topiarist’s Garden’ in the Artisan category is more what I would look for in a garden and I could quite happily have taken it home with me.

The hottest day of the year so far meant the scent in the Great Pavilion was AMAZING. You could smell the strawberries on the Ken Muir stand before you got to them. The masses of lilies, hyacinths and roses too filled the air with a heady fragrance. It really was WOW!

And, I know it’s a bit twee but I did have soft spot for the Hooksgreen Herbs stand which was inspired by Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. I really feel for the person dressed up as aforesaid bunny, who must have been cooking inside all that fur.

BoJo - a crocheted gorilla

BoJo – a crocheted gorilla (copyright Ian Curley)

I’m not sure why but gorillas kept cropping up. If you want to part with a substantial wad of cash you could buy a humongous statue of one for your garden … well, each to their own. If you fancied a gorilla with an extra dimension you could have one clad in shells or lavender flowers, but my favourite had to be BoJo, a crocheted sculpture of a gorilla named after Boris Johnson. I know it sounds odd but it was quite incredible. Maybe someone didn’t understand the concept of ‘guerilla gardening’?

So, to sum up Chelsea 2014 – hot weather, hot planting and some hot new design talent.

 

Whizzing by

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Alliums in May

Alliums in May

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that May is whizzing by all too quickly. I’m trying desperately, in amongst the general panic of too much to do-ness, to find time to stop and appreciate what is one of my most favourite times of the year. So I’m taking a quick pit-stop to write a bit about what May means to me.

May means:

- late night, torch-light fleecing at the plot

- an emptying greenhouse

- overflowing cold frames

- a car boot full of plants ready to be planted out

- the joy of the first alliums opening

- despair at discovering the first of many holes in my hostas

- forgetting AGAIN to do the Chelsea chop

- and, thereby resigning myself to a summer of staking and floppy plants

- pickings of stock Matthiola incana, the most intoxicating of scents

- panic that I haven’t sown enough and I’ve missed the boat for another year

- panic that I have sown way too much and where is it all going to go

chive flowers on my allotment

- chive flowers in full bloom lining my fruit beds at the plot

- watering my plot at twilight to the sound of birds

- anticipation after spotting the first swelling fruits on my strawberries

-  too many weeds

- the first rose on ‘Gertrude Jekyll’

- the smell of my warm greenhouse

- the miraculous sprouting into life of the overwintered twigs in a pot otherwise known as lemon verbena

- and finally the exhaustion that accompanies all of this. Everything comes at once and it all feels a bit relentless, but then I see the burgeoning garden and I pick some salad leaves, and I know why I do it. This is what keeps me going – along with tea and chocolate of course. Oh!, and the distant glimmer of hope that I might be able to sit down at some point soon. I’d love to know what May means to you.

Have a fabulous weekend everyone!

 

 

 

 

Scone Scoffing

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Tea and Scones WeekI was asked recently by the charity Tuberous Sclerosis if I would write a blog post to promote their Tea and Scones week which runs from 12th to 18th May. The charity raises funds and awareness into this rare genetic condition which can cause epilepsy, learning disabilities, autism and renal problems. There is currently no cure for the condition and so they hope to raise money for medical research by encouraging people to indulge in a spot of baking. It was only when I came to sit down and write the post that I started to wonder how I could relate scones to gardening. Then I thought about all the gardens I have visited over the years and some of those which stick in the head most are often those where I can remember whether their baking was up to scratch too. I don’t know what that says about me, that I’m a little obsessed by food perhaps, or that I’ll forgive any gardening fashion faux pas if you’ve sated my appetite with something sweet.

Whether it’s a National Trust garden, a lavishly designed private space or somewhere on a more modest scale the gardening year wouldn’t be quite the same without a visit to one or more of these for inspiration. A sunny afternoon spent noseying around someone else’s garden revelling in their peonies or questioning their taste in garden ornaments is as quintessentially British as it gets. But the day isn’t truly complete unless there’s the opportunity at some point for tea and cake.

For any garden which opens to the public the refreshments on offer are a vital source of extra income whether it’s to raise revenue to maintain the garden or in the case of the NGS to make more money for charity. The National Gardens Scheme have facilitated the public access to thousands of gardens across Britain since it started in 1927. Not only does it give gardeners the opportunity to show off their creations it’s also the chance to taste some pretty impressive baking. This is not the time to turn up with some shop bought Mr Kipling’s.

I am partial to a slice of traditional Victoria sponge or the zesty hit of a lemon drizzle but I’m not sure you can beat the classic cream tea. A scone, some jam and a dollop of clotted cream is a simple but winning combination. Yet this simplicity belies the controversy which surrounds the humble scone. How you pronounce ‘scone’ for a start will reveal where you grew up. Say ‘scone’ so it rhymes with ‘gone’ and you’re most likely a northerner; pronounce it so it rhymes with ‘cone’ and you’re from the south. Where the demarcation line between the two is I don’t know; it would be interesting to find out though. Is there a town somewhere in Nottinghamshire or Bedfordshire where north becomes south? So often in Britain the simple pronunciation of a word can mark you out immediately as an outsider. We once lived in a suburb of Guildford called Burpham. To us, until we had been shown the error of our ways by the estate agent, it was ‘Burp – ham’, turns out the locals referred to it as ‘Burfam’. Now I live in Wales and there’s a long list of places I wouldn’t even know where to start when it comes to pronunciation. I wonder if other languages have this too?

Getting back to the scones, there is also the whole ‘which goes on first’ debate as to whether you smear your scone with jam first or the cream. For something that only consists of three ingredients it’s remarkable and some might say very British that it can stir up such a fuss. Much of this is due to the rivalry between Britain’s most south-westerly counties – Cornwall and Devon. A Cornish cream tea places the jam on first and a Devon cream tea is vice versa. I’m sure my late Cornish grandmother would be pleased to know I’m a jam first girl.

It’s easy to think that something like this was dreamt up by some PR person for the tourist board but I know something of the fiercely protected regional differences of the south-west. When members of my family moved, the not particularly great distance of 26 miles, from a small fishing village in Cornwall to the city of Plymouth at the start of the 20th century it was considered a move to a ‘foreign’ country as they had crossed the River Tamar into neighbouring Devon.

Scones are so simple to make, in fact they were the first recipe I was taught in home economics. A bit of self-raising flour, milk, sugar and butter. I prefer a plain scone and I always reduce the amount of sugar suggested in the recipe. In my opinion, the sweetness should come from the jam. I’m happy enough with the addition of a few sultanas but the pleasure of a scone is it’s simplicity. As for recipes, there are plenty to choose from. I tend to use a Mary Berry one but have used Delia and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall too. I’d draw the line at the blueberry, coconut and lime scones I came across the other day. Several steps too far, I think.

Then we come to the jam. A cream tea generally comes with strawberry or raspberry both of which I love, but if I had the choice it would be blackcurrant every time. If you fancy something seasonal to try at your Tea and Scone event next week try this rhubarb and vanilla jam. I tasted it at Lia and Juliet’s Supper Club last year in the middle of some homemade jammy dodgers and it was delicious.

Tea and Scones Logo

So why not get together with some friends to scoff some scones, chat about plants and raise a bit of money for charity. For more details about Tea and Scone Week visit tuberous-sclerosis.org.uk and if you’d like to share recipes and photos tweet @UKTSA and use #TeaandSCones.

Oh! And I’d love to hear your garden and cake stories. The best and the worst and the sweet treat you can’t resist.

Arboreal delights

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Magnolia campbellii 'Darjeeling'

Magnolia campbellii ‘Darjeeling’

I don’t know if it’s this year’s fantastic spring weather we’ve had, glorious blue skies, warm sunshine and very little rain or wind (well up until this last weekend anyway), that has made me notice the trees so much more than before but boy have they looked spectacular. Autumn tends to be the season for trees, with us salivating over their autumnal colour as the chlorophyll production wanes and stunning oranges, reds and yellows light up the countryside. But what has struck me over recent weeks is the amount of colour generated by trees in spring .

We walked along the Kennet and Avon canal from Bradford on Avon towards Bath on Good Friday. Looking across at the hillsides it was remarkable to me to see purples, pinks and oranges alongside the zingy vibrant green I would normally associate with trees at this time of year. I don’t know why I haven’t really paid this much attention before. Then on Easter Monday we visited Batsford Arboretum in the Cotswolds. Again I was blown away by the colour. It wasn’t just the fading daffodils and hellebores or the emerging herbaceous perennials, the trees were more than holding their own. Blossom is the most obvious way trees announce themselves in spring and this has been one of the best years I can remember for such an impressive display of frothy tree flowers. The combination of such a hot summer last year, when wood ripened and flower buds formed, with the lack of rain and wind have meant trees have been dripping in blossom. My own crab apple tree couldn’t have any more flowers on it if it wanted. It looks like a giant candy floss at the end of my garden. It’s also one huge humming mass of bees feasting on pollen.

Spring acer colour

Spring acer colour

What I have noticed more than ever this year are the unfurling leaves of new growth. At Batsford, the collection of acers in the sunlight looked as good as any autumnal colour. There were beeches with their reddish-brown corrugated leaves and the pink-tinged horse chestnut leaves. I particularly loved the leaves of this Japanese horse chestnut bursting out like Beaker from The Muppets.

Japanese horse chestnut

Japanese horse chestnut

Batsford has a spectacular collection of magnolias, from the dainty flowers of Magnolia stellata to the huge candy pink blooms of Magnolia campbellii ‘Darjeeling’. Magnolias can be amazing but lets face it they are at the mercy of the weather more than most plants. One badly timed frost and those pristine blooms can be turned to brown mush overnight, and that is it for another a year – the whole purpose of planting the tree in the first place ruined. Then along comes a spring with no frost and magnolias sing with their intriguing flowers. Magnolias are ancient plants, fossilised remains have been dated to 95 million years ago and there is something about them which means I can imagine them in a time when the planet was packed with dense vegetation and dinosaurs wandered around.

Malus spectabilis

Malus spectabilis

Malus spectabilis really did live up to its name and smelt divinely of citrus. Perhaps a bit on the big size for the average garden though.

Batsford itself has a fascinating history. One of the largest private collections of trees in the UK covering 55 acres it is now part of a trust which looks to educate and promote understanding of trees. Batsford works with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh to conserve conifers and is home to a collection of endangered Chilean conifers. They also work with Kew and other gardens to grow species on the Red Data List conserving threatened species for the future.

The landscaping that forms the present day setting of the arboretum was set out by Algernon Bertram Freeman- Mitford, grandfather to the controversial Mitford sisters, in the late 19th century. It was his friendships with 3 directors of Kew Botanic Gardens and his time spent in China and Japan working for the Foreign Office which were the inspirations for the beginnings of the arboretum. Today you can still get a real sense of the naturalistic style he wanted to create when he swept away the more formal landscaped grounds, and the artificial stream, statuary, Japanese rest house and clumps of bamboo all point to a passion for the Far East.

Algernon’s son inherited Batsford in 1916 and spent the First Word War living there with his family until the running costs of such a large estate became too much. The new owner Gilbert Alan Hamilton Wills, who became Lord Dulverton, was a keen plantsman but it was his son, Frederick who, on inheriting the estate in 1956, set about establishing an arboretum and planted many of the trees we can see today.

It’s quite a privilege to have enough disposable income to indulge your horticultural passion and create something on such a scale as Batsford but I’m very much glad they did.

For more information on visiting Batsford Arboretum.

Where to start

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Primula sieboldii

I’m never quite sure where to start when I have had a bit of a blogging break. I didn’t plan a hiatus. I rather like the discipline of writing a post every week and know from my attempts in the past to keep a diary how hard it can be to start writing again once you get out of the rhythm.

A virus sapped me of much of my energy for several weeks. I know something is wrong when the thought of going to the plot, or the need to spend some time in the greenhouse feels like too much of an effort and more like a chore than something I normally love. Work was pretty hectic too and the two combined to result in a stinking cold. There wasn’t much I could do but crawl into bed and stay there for a few days. Of course, I spent the whole time lying there thinking about how much there was to do. I would say if a gardener is going to go sick the worst time to do it is probably April. I could almost hear the weeds at the allotment growing as I reached for another tissue. Oh, and there was the small matter of having to prepare for the first photo shoot of my second book. I’m not quite sure how that bit happened but I find myself growing plants for another book and entering round two of my battle with the weather. Last year my panic was fuelled by the lack of any spring and the worry we might never have a summer. This year it’s all change with a spring of warm sunshine. Beautiful, and I wouldn’t swap it but it has been a bit of a nightmare trying to keep plants from going over.

photo shoot day

Tricks of the trade – photo shoot day

With a bit of breathing space, now I have some photos in the bag, followed by a relaxing Easter break I thought it was about time I put fingers to keyboard and return to my neglected blog.

In some ways being otherwise occupied has been a bit of a blessing. I do have a tendency to get a bit carried away with half-hardy annuals, sowing them too early. I always seem to forget, or choose to ignore the fact that they germinate and grow pretty quickly. By the start of May, I have windowsills chock full of courgettes, French beans and squashes romping away with nowhere to go because it’s still too chilly for them outside. I’m hoping my timing this year, sowing in the middle of April rather than at the start of the month, might be a bit more realistic and save me the headache of trying to accommodate the triffids reaching for the sun.

R A Scamp - Floral marquee RHS Cardiff Show

R A Scamp – Floral marquee RHS Cardiff Show

It’s a pity I can’t be more realistic about the number of plants it is possible for me to grow. The greenhouse, cold frames and windowsills are running at full capacity at the moment. But it’s impossible to turn away more plants. One day, a few weeks ago, an unexpected parcel arrived from Suttons Seeds. They had very generously sent me a sample of 3 tomato plug plants. I did groan a little initially, thinking where on earth was I going to put them, but it wasn’t long before I had mentally rearranged the myriad of plants I already have to be able to squeeze them in. I’m really looking forward to giving them a go. I have had pretty disastrous results growing tomatoes since I moved to Wales, with tomatoes succumbing to blight, and then last year, with the greenhouse installed they suffered at the hands of a bad batch of compost and shrivelled up and died. The tomatoes Suttons sent are a new variety called ‘Indigo Rose’. It’s a black-skinned tomato that is apparently packed full of the antioxidant anthocyanin. It’s a grafted tomato too which I have never grown before. The apparent advantages of grafting include greater yields and improved disease resistance. They’re growing quickly on my study windowsill at the moment. Hopefully it won’t be long before some space is freed up in the greenhouse so they can take up residence there. I’ll let you know how I get on and hopefully I’ll get some fruit so I can report back on the all important flavour test.

RHS Cardiff Show

RHS Cardiff Show – Victoria Wade’s Norwegian garden

My cold shifted in time for me to make a trip to the RHS Cardiff Show. The weather couldn’t have been more spring-like and the show does have a feeling of excitement and anticipation of the growing season to come. The floral marquee looked spectacular with the incredible R A Scamp narcissi display winning best exhibit. The show gardens were much improved this year compared to last. I particularly loved Victoria Wade’s Norwegian inspired garden with its naturalistic feel.

Lunaria annua 'Chedglow'

Lunaria annua ‘Chedglow’

The highlight of the show for me was the discovery of this beauty, Lunaria annua ‘Chedglow’ on the Avon Bulbs stand. It’s a variety of the humble honesty plant with incredible chocolate coloured leaves and striking purple stems. I love honesty for cutting, both for the spring flowers and for the moon-like seed pods produced in summer and think this will be a stunner when arranged with tulips. I came away with a packet of seeds. As a biennial it won’t produce flowers until next spring but it’ll be well worth the wait.

 

 

 

The Great British Florist

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Great British Flowers

Great British Flowers

I love growing my own flowers but there is one downside – there’s no need for anyone to send them to me now. My mum does still ask if I’d like a bouquet for our wedding anniversary or my birthday but when nearly every room is filled with flowers throughout the summer it just doesn’t make any sense. I know, I know, as downsides go it hardly even registers on a ‘woe is me’ scale, so I’m by no means wanting any sympathy. However, when the lovely team at The Great British Florist asked if I would like to review one of the bouquets they are putting together for Mother’s Day I jumped at the chance.

I used to do yoga before I moved over to Wales. One day, mid-way through a class, the yoga teacher said she really missed going to yoga classes herself and she really must fit in a session sometime. It was a comment that stuck in my head because at the time it struck me as being quite odd. Initially, I didn’t understand what she meant; she taught yoga classes all week, how much more yoga did she want to do. It took a while for the penny to drop (it does sometimes). What she meant was that teaching yoga was very much different to being able to experience the full benefits of the class as a student and that even once you’re a teacher you still need to carry on learning. I know, you’re wondering why I’ve gone off on this tangent, I will be getting back to the flowers. It’s just that I think the yoga story is relevant to so much in life. It’s very easy to get quite fixed in our thoughts and habits with pretty much everything we do. Perhaps modern life makes this more likely, everything is done at such a pace so we can cram so much into our days that maybe we don’t have the time to stop and think and look at things in a different way. And this is where the beautiful bouquet which turned up yesterday comes in. Not only was it a really special treat for me, it’s good for the creative juices to see what other British flower growers are growing and how they put their arrangements together.

Stunning ranunculus

Stunning ranunculus

Anyway enough of me rambling, let’s get to the flowers. I’m aware when I talk and write about British flowers that not everyone has the space to grow them themselves or is lucky enough to have a flower grower local to them. But there is another alternative – mail-order. I’ve been a bit worried about mail order flowers in the past and whether they will survive being transported. Well I had no complaints about this bouquet. The substantial, sturdy box had clearly done its job as the flowers emerged looking beautiful. Rather than being packed in water, a water-soluble gel is used instead. This keeps the flowers fresh and contains plant nutrients and it won’t leak if the box is tipped over. I had chosen the vibrant Mother’s Day bouquet which came packed with scented narcissi, irises, lilies, freesias, ranunculus and alstroemeria. It was lovely to catch the intoxicating scent of the blooms as I lifted the bouquet out of its box. And the real joy – they’re all grown here in Britain. 

Great British Flowers

The two busiest times of the year for flower sales – Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day come early in the growing season. I’m sure a lot of people are completely unaware that it is possible to buy such a varied choice of flowers grown in this country at this time of year, even I was impressed with the selection. There was plenty of foliage too, a mixture of eucalyptus and bay. The £50 bouquet is huge and was enough to fill two good-sized vases. If I hadn’t been having one of those days I would have divided the material up into lots of smaller vases and put them all around the house. I’m pretty sure I could have had a posy in every room. There’s also a smaller £35 bouquet, the choice of a pastel-coloured arrangement and other selections throughout the year, if they are more to your taste and pocket.

The only tiny problem I had with the bouquet was the one sheet of plastic sheeting that was wrapped around the base of the flowers – all the other packaging is recyclable. There is, of course the necessary practicality of needing a watertight material in which to keep the flowers fresh while keeping the cost of packaging to a minimum. As Heidi from The Great British Florist explained, it is a balance trying to keep the flowers in tip-top condition whilst keeping the costs of packaging to a minimum, maximising the amount of flowers they can include in a bouquet and maintaining their environmental ethos. Considering all of this, it’s remarkable that the flowers come with so little non-recyclable packaging. I arranged a bouquet for a friend recently that was purchased from a high street florist and it came with a mountain of unnecessary and non-recyclable packaging.

Great British Flowers

The Great British Florist is part of Wiggly Wigglers, the company which became known for its worm composting products. Based at Lower Blakemere Farm in Herefordshire they grow some of their own flowers and the rest are bought in from specialist British growers across the country. The farm is run with caring for the environment and wildlife at its core. If you’d like to find out more about this idyllic place take a look at The Great British Florist. And, if you would like to order from them for Mother’s Day or throughout the year then here’s a link direct to the floristry section.

Thank you to the team at The Great British Florist for their gorgeous bouquet.

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