Clearing the decks

Indian Summer sunshine - Bunny tails (Lagurus ovatus)

Indian Summer sunshine – Bunny tails (Lagurus ovatus)

I’ve always been a great believer in the adage ‘a tidy house, a tidy mind’. There definitely seems to be a correlation between how clean the space is around me and how clear my brain feels in order to get on with work. Perhaps that’s why I’ve noticed in the last few years the fog that descends on me in August as the garden takes on a slightly wild appearance and I realise that it’s in control and not me. It’s not that I want a garden which is pristine. I prefer a relaxed space with plants tumbling over paths and self-seeded plants popping up in unexpected places, but there is a line where relaxed becomes chaotic. I’m sure I’m not alone in the reluctance to remove or cut back plants which are past their best but still flowering. With autumn comes a release, the freedom to feel able to empty pots of their tired and overgrown bedding plants, to pull out those annuals which have seen better days. It all feels very therapeutic.

October will be a busy month and time in the garden will be in short supply so we’ve made the most of this brief Indian Summer to gain some control. Pots have been cleared and replanted with violas for autumn and winter cheer, hanging baskets have been dismantled, the compost heap has been emptied, the last of the tomatoes picked. Then there was the plot. Work up there is restricted to weekends now but at least I’ve got Wellyman helping out now that he has finished his degree. Apart from brief trips to pick flowers or collect some fruit and vegetables it had been over three weeks since I’d done any work on the plot. I felt a bit guilty it had been so neglected but there’s nothing like a spot of weeding and deadheading to give you the chance to mull over the year and think about what you’ve learnt, the successes and failures, what you want to grow next year and what isn’t worth devoting soil to anymore.

Cosmos 'Psyche Rose'

Cosmos ‘Psyche Rose Picotee’

A few thoughts which crept into my head:

  • You can have too many pots – they overwhelmed me and the patio this year. Many of them were for work so were a necessary nuisance. But it has shown me the need for space in a garden particularly if you don’t have a lawn. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you can have too many plants.
  • It’s surprising how inconvenient it can be to have lettuce and herbs growing on the plot rather than at home. It’s only five minutes away but it might as well be the other end of the country when I’m mid-sandwich prep and realise I’m short on salad. It would make sense to have these in pots at home but I refer you to my previous point.
  • The frustrating and unfathomable nature of nature. Wasps have plagued our raspberries this year. Apart from them adding a certain amount of frisson to the picking process – Russian roulette with a sting rather than a bullet – they have the annoying habit of eating a hole in the base of a raspberry and then moving on to the next where they do the same. If they all clubbed together and at least picked a berry and ate the whole thing I wouldn’t mind so much, we all have to eat, but no, they work their way through our raspberry patch nibbling away as if they’re at a food festival and want to try a bit of everything.
  • I love growing potatoes. For several years I haven’t bothered with the humble spud but back in January we were in a garden centre looking for something else and ended up coming out with a few paper bags of seed potatoes. Perhaps I’ve loved them so much because for very little effort they reward you handsomely. I’m looking to double the amount for next year. Any recommendations gratefully received.
  • I can’t get enough of dahlias. As with the potatoes these fabulous plants need so little attention and yet they just keep on producing the most exquisite of flowers. They’re happiness in a vase. If the bank balance will take it, a whole bed will be given over to them next year.
Dahlia 'Karam Naomi'

Dahlia ‘Karma Naomi’

  • Despite feeling like I can’t keep on top of everything I can’t bring myself to hand in the allotment. I don’t spend as much time up there now as I first did. But where would I grow all those potatoes and dahlias if I didn’t have my little patch of land.
  • Nobody mentions storage when they extol the virtues of growing your own produce. We had over 60 apples from one small espaliered apple tree this year. Fabulous! That is until you have to find somewhere to store them all. I look at those beautiful wooden apple storage racks that appear in stylish gardening magazines at this time of year and wonder who has the space for them – I can’t get into my downstairs loo because it’s become home to a trug for the recycling, vases which won’t fit anywhere else and a collection of pots filled with ‘Paper White’ narcissi for forcing. Best I stick to early potatoes next year.
  • I need to be more ruthless. We have three rhubarb plants – two is plenty. I’ve been meaning to get rid of one of them for a few years now but never seem to get round to it. It’s the same with flowers. I seem to grow some each year despite not really using them as cut flowers. I’m finding that my flower patch is a bit like my wardrobe – I have my favourites that I go to all the time and others go untouched. Fashion magazines talk about capsule wardrobes – does anyone ever achieve that, even the top stylists must have something lurking in their wardrobe that they thought was a good idea when they bought it but they’ve never actually worn it. Well I think I need to attempt a flower version of the capsule wardrobe with my cutting patch. I need to ruthless with flowers that are taking up valuable space and ditch them next year, then I can squeeze in some more dahlias.
  • Last year I’d missed the opportunity to sow some green manure and I really regretted it. I don’t like to see bare soil over winter particularly after persistent heavy rain when the soil takes on a pulverized look. It can be tricky using green manures though. That desire to eek out plants for as long as possible (this seems to be a running theme) means that it can often be too late to sow a green manure so that it puts on enough growth at this time of year do actually do its job. Well, on Sunday any vegetables and flowers that had seen better days came out, the ground was cleared and raked and in went some winter rye grass. Hopefully by the end of the month it will have formed a tufty, green duvet to protect the soil over winter.

I’d love to hear what you’ve taken away from this growing year.

A Book Review – Brew It Yourself


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Brew It Yourself

My first introduction to the world of home brewing was my dad’s concoctions bubbling and burping away in the corner of the living room – a strange soundtrack which accompanied our TV watching. Demijohns of wine were placed in this spot because the warmth of the nearby fire aided the fermentation process. On one occasion it aided it rather too much as red, winey bubbles exploded one evening as we watched Corrie*, peppering the wallpaper with frothy red stains. After this wine making was banished moved to the bathroom airing cupboard.

Fascinated by the whole idea I decided aged 5 or so to undertake my own brewing. No alcohol was actually involved, just a rag-tag collection of dried fruit which had been lingering in the cupboard from the previous year’s Christmas cake making, various bits of fresh fruit, some sugar and a bucket of water. Oh, and I vaguely remember an enormous wooden spoon. The stirring of this weird mix kept me amused for a while but it never made it to the bottling stage.

Brew It Yourself

Then there was the inevitable tasting of home brew at university. A friend would bring back supplies of pea pod wine from her family’s farm in Shropshire, it was very much like The Good Life** and was potent stuff to fuel a party.

In recent years more successful forays have included the fabulous jewel-coloured damson vodka which was opened with some ceremony on Christmas Eve in front of a roaring fire.

Brew It Yourself

Spruce bitters and spruce martini

All this brings me to the book Brew It Yourself by the bloggers Two Thirsty Gardeners otherwise known as Nick Moyle and Richard Hood. There was a time when making your own booze was seen as the height of hippyness, all knitted sandals and face-puckering attempts at creating your own alcoholic drinks, but Nick and Richard have made it their mission to bring home brewing to a whole new audience. They’ve taken their two loves – gardening and alcohol – and created a book of over 70 different recipes which shows that home brewing can be fun, quick, inexpensive and tasty.

Well, I loved it, as did Wellyman who kept disappearing off with the book if I put it down for any length of time. It’s well thought out with a good mix of recipes for those who want something quick and easy such as liqueurs which can take minutes to concoct, to those for the more experienced or adventurous brewer such as India pale ale which needs a few hours of your time. Nick and Richard take you through all of the basics you’ll need to get yourself started including how to use a hydrometer to measure the percentage of alcohol – you don’t need this or much other equipment for many of the simpler drinks. The different sections cover wine and mead, cider, beer, ale and lager, sparkling drinks, liqueurs and cocktails. Alongside the recipes are interesting snippets and tips which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I loved the design and stylish photography but most of all I thought the writing was engaging and witty.

Brew It Yourself


It was fascinating to discover how drinks that are part of our heritage are made, such as the fabulously named Lambswool traditionally drunk when wassailing. Inspiration from further afield has also been included – there’s Sima a Finnish drink using lemons or rumtopf from Germany among others. And for those who want to dip their toe into home brewing there are suggestions for liqueurs where you can buy the basic alcohol – either whisky, brandy or vodka – and then give it a home spun twist using fruit, herbs and spices. Nick has included a recipe devised by his mum, Julia’s Orange whisky with its star anise and cinnamon, which sounds just perfect for a Christmas present.

And now’s the time to be using up gluts from the allotment and scouring the hedgerows. I do love the sound of the wild bramble brandy and the damson and fennel vodka, then there’s the cherry fortified red wine (you can use shop-bought wine). To be honest they all sound delicious. Not only could you create a variety of home-brewed bottles to impress family and friends with as Christmas presents but the book itself would make a fantastic present (sorry for mentioning the C word).

*Coronation Street otherwise known as Corrie – a soap opera set in Manchester which has never surpassed its peak of Derek with his travelling gnome and car with a huge paperclip on top of it.

** The Good Life – Seventies TV comedy based around Tom and Barbara Good who decide to become self-sufficient in their suburban garden. Felicity Kendal who played Barbara did the seemingly impossible by looking gorgeous in dungarees whilst splattered in mud.

Brew it Yourself is available to buy now. Thank you to Nourish Books for my review copy.


Rain, rain go away and publication day


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raindrops on web

A wet August has made for a decidedly sodden garden and allotment, and at times a soggy gardener. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was just drizzle but it has been the sort of rain, those big fat drops, which soaks you in minutes.

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a fair weather gardener. It’s the cold that mainly makes me retreat indoors. Rain doesn’t bother me so much, particularly if I’m prepared and wearing full waterproofs, even if I do make a passing attempt at the ‘trawlerman off to sea’ look. The problem with gardening when it’s wet is the mess that results. It’s impossible to not end up looking like a creature from the deep or like I’ve spent the last few hours bog snorkelling rather than gardening. Or is this just me?

Weeding is initially quite pleasurable as dandelions and thistles with long tap roots slip from the rain-softened earth so much more easily than from sun-baked soil. It’s not long though before I’m covered in mud. Using the trowel or hoe elicits a squelching noise from my rain-soaked gloves as another weed is removed. Deadheading isn’t too bad but then the petals and leaves stick to me.

I trimmed my yew topiary cones by the front door last week. The forecast promised wall to wall sunshine and little chance of rain. The yew needed taming. It had taken on an unkempt shagginess which meant it was no longer possible to distinguish any real shape. I wish I hadn’t planted them in the first place. Clipping them, although a task only needed to be done once a year, has become a chore. One of those jobs I’ll put off until I have to accept I need to do it or we won’t be able to get to the front door. Of course the wall to wall sunshine included a series of heavy downpours – it’s been that kind of summer. I sheltered in the hall during these cloud bursts but each time I returned outside the soggy yew clippings would cling to everything – me, the shears, the path and the brush. Much muttering about stupid yews and their annoying need to grow and chastisements of the inexperienced gardener who planted them 8 years ago ensued.

Autumnal flowers

There’s an autumnal feel to my arrangements now

I absent-mindedly left the shed door open last week. The next morning it looked like a torrent had streamed through it. A neighbour asked if I’d heard the storm that night. I sleep with ear plugs in so had been oblivious to the deluge the heavens had deposited on the village.

At least showers have replaced incessant rain. In the intervening dry spells I have been trying to get as many garden jobs done as possible. Hardy annuals have been sown, biennials are in their final homes on the cut flower patch, the plot has been weeded and the box balls no longer look like shaggy hedgehogs. All this means I can go off for a bit of a break knowing everything is as it should be, well, for a couple of weeks at least.

The Crafted Garden

So it’s finally here. The Crafted Garden is published today. It’s an exciting and nerve-racking time. I’ve had some lovely feedback already which is always a bit of a relief. I really hope if you get a chance to read it you’ll feel inspired to try some crafting using nature. Whether it’s simply collecting a few bits and pieces on a walk and creating your own nature table at home, making natural wreaths or finding ideas for home crafted Christmas decorations. Even if crafting isn’t your thing I’ve included some fabulous garden-worthy plants that will make great additions to any green space and there are tips along the way on how to grow a variety of plants. And of course, there are plenty of flowers.

The Crafted Garden is available from bookshops and online, or you could take advantage of this special discount price.

To order The Crafted Garden by Louise Curley at the discounted price of £13.99 including p&p* (RRP: £16.99), telephone 01903 828503 or email and quote the offer code APG355. 

*UK ONLY – Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

Finding my way


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Capturing summer

Capturing summer

Life is like a maze, sometimes it’s easy to find your way to where you want to go, other times you stumble around coming up to dead ends or not being quite sure of which direction to take.

I’ve never really enjoyed mazes. Wellyman on the other hand, with his more logical, problem solving brain, loves them. He tackled one in Belgium three times in the same afternoon. The second and third times he was unaccompanied. As mazes go Drielandenpunt is pretty impressive. On the borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands it is Europe’s largest hedge maze, created by the English maze designer Adrian Fisher from 17,000 hornbeam trees. Once was enough for me though.

I’m feeling a bit like I’ve been stumbling around in a maze for most of August to be honest which explains my absence from the blog. August always brings a lull. It’s a no man’s land, ideal for those on holiday but a strange void of time for those who aren’t. I was meant to use this month productively and make the most of the quiet spell. We’ve caught up with family and some friends which has been lovely but the admin and tax return still await, silently nagging me as I walk past them piled up on my desk. Other jobs I had hoped to tackle remain on my list and September is approaching fast.

Discombobulated is the word for it. I’m sure the weather hasn’t helped. It is August, isn’t it, and I haven’t slept Sleeping Beauty-like for several months and woken up in November. I need some clarity as my mind has developed a fog which won’t seem to shift. Even my garden and plot aren’t providing the same respite they normally do. I’m not sure if they are actually contributing to some of the fog. They’ve both had to work hard this summer with pots and plants galore and the garden is feeling cramped – perhaps I’m asking too much of it. Certainly the crab apple needs attention as it’s casting too much shade over the end of the garden hence the back border flagging so early this summer. Where it once created pleasant, dappled shade it is now downright gloomy. It feels like I need room to breathe and that the garden needs room to breathe too.

Dahlias from the cut flower patch

Dahlias from the cut flower patch

But through the fog come the flowers. My love of dahlias grows every year. They just make me smile and I’ve noticed it’s a reaction others have to them too. They are joyful blooms and I want more. I picked some Dahlia ‘Karma Naomi’ and D. ‘Amberglow’ yesterday, along with some other flowers to take to a friend who has just moved into a new home. Ann is a feisty, spirited lady in her seventies who used to be our neighbour when we first moved to the area. She has just taken the plunge and left her home of over 20 years to move into a flat as arthritis takes its toll, so I thought the flowers might bring a smile to her face and they did. On the journey there I had so many people asking about the dahlias. I fear for my bank balance as my dahlia wish list is growing daily thanks largely to all those flower growers I follow on Instagram. Could I devote a whole bed at the plot to just dahlias? Well, half a bed at least.

Dahlia 'American Moon'

Dahlia ‘American Moon’

This one is a bit of a monster. The flowers on D. ‘American Moon’ are big and I love the intricacy of the petals and the flashes of lemon among the pink. It’s a bit tricky to use with other flowers in arrangements as the flower heads are whoppers, but it’s beautiful enough to warrant a vase of its own.

Cosmos 'Xanthos'

Cosmos ‘Xanthos’

One of the stars of the show this year has been Cosmos ‘Xanthos’. It’s been flowering now since the start of July. I know lots of gardeners shy away from yellow or just don’t like it as a colour. I interviewed a gardener recently who told me she’d told the designer Tom Stuart Smith that she didn’t want any yellow in her garden. He went ahead and added yellow plants and she now loves the colour. I’ve loved ‘Xanthos’. In fact, it might even be my favourite cosmos. I find many of the pink varieties a bit too girly. They conjure up images of cupcakes, frills and candy floss. I’ve loved ‘Xanthos’ because it’s like a hit of acidic lemon juice cutting through all that saccharin sweetness. It looks fabulous planted and arranged with the striking blue of Salvia patens.

Another favourite is Larkspur ‘Misty Lavender’. It has an aged vintage beauty about it even as the petals unfurl. Like all larkspurs it dries really well, retaining its colour beautifully. I have used larkspurs in several projects in my new book The Crafted Garden and have bunches of larkspur drying in my airing cupboard at the moment. I love plants which have other uses, whether it’s a pretty seed pod, petals that dry or fabulous foliage, as well as stunning blooms. In a small space it makes sense to grow plants which can be used for different purposes.

Cobaea scandens

Cobaea scandens

Then there’s Cobaea scandens or the cup and saucer plant. This exotic beauty is finally putting on a show. It’s a tender climber so it only started to flower in August, perhaps a tad reluctantly as grey skies have loomed over head, but it’ll keep going until frost cuts it back. Hopefully that won’t be until well into autumn and then we can enjoy these fabulous flowers for some time yet. I’m growing the purple variety but the fascinating thing is that as the bud opens the flowers are white. When I first saw one open I thought there had been a mix up with the seeds. Then over the next day or so the trumpet started to flush with colour until the whole flower had been transformed into the purple flower I had ordered. They look beautiful climbing up and over the hazel arch Wellyman made for me back in spring.

Helianthus 'Italian White'

Helianthus ‘Italian White’

There was a point when I wondered if I’d have any sunflowers at all this year. At the end of June my Helianthus ‘Italian White’ plants looked dreadful. I always start sunflowers off indoors as slugs will devour seedlings over night. My little plants went into the ground in June about a foot tall with healthy green leaves and they looked fabulous, if I do say so myself. Of course pride comes before a fall and two weeks later they were in a sorry state. Slug-mauled, wind-battered and covered in blackfly. Wellyman attempting to squish the blackfly accidentally decapitated one of the plants too. I wish I’d taken a photo of them but it was too embarrassing. Well the transformation is quite remarkable. I now have 5ft tall lemon-coloured flowers reaching for the sun (desperately hoping they’ll see some). They’re more delicate with smaller flower heads than most sunflowers and I find they are much easier to arrange with other flowers.

Not everything has worked. There have been annoying mix ups with seed varieties and tubers. Chatting with others this seems to be a problem which afflicts most seed and bulb companies. It’s frustrating but occasionally they bring a pleasant surprise. Antirrhinum ‘Snowflake’ has turned out to be a multi-coloured selection with beautiful lemon flowers and striking cerise blooms on fabulously tall stems. Fortunately I don’t grow for weddings otherwise I might be quite grumpy about these unexpected colours in the flower beds.

Through the fog my love of flowers hasn’t diminished and maybe they might even help me to find my way out of this maze.

My new book – The Crafted Garden


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The Crafted Garden

My new book ©Jason Ingram

A heavy envelope which felt like it had books in it arrived the other day with the postmark of my publisher on it. It’s funny how after nearly two years in the making, and the pulling teeth process of editing which can make even the most committed of authors fall a little out of love with their book, the excitement is still there when you see all that work come together for the first time. It’s not as if the content comes as a surprise, you spend hours in front of a computer writing the words, there’s the time coming up with the ideas, in my case growing the plants to provide the material and there’s the photo shoots. Finally there’s the editing process. Time spent working with your editor and the designer marrying the photos and text together, and the juggling of it all to fit the layout and design of the book. Weeks and weeks of looking at PDFs and going through edited text can strip you of most of the passion and excitement you had when the book first started to form as an idea.

Fortunately there is a breathing space when it all goes quiet, the emails from the publisher stop and you return to a life no longer dictated to by your book. You stop waking up early, usually with a sudden jolt, worrying about whether you’ve spelt someone’s name correctly in the acknowledgments, or whether you remembered to send that urgent email about the photo that’s in the wrong place.

The Crafted Garden

A spring project – The Crafted Garden ©Jason Ingram

Several months later the emails start again – publication date is drawing closer. Then a package, a book-shaped package, arrives and that excitement you felt all those months ago when you first starting working on the idea returns. It’s a little odd seeing all those long hours, the frustrations but also the fun times, staring back at you in book form. It’s a team effort to bring everything together and it was a delight to work with the very talented team behind my last book, editors Helen and Joanna, photographer Jason Ingram and designer Becky Clarke. Wellyman is also rather chuffed that some of his photos have made it into the book too.

The Crafted Garden brings together my love of gardening, crafting and nature. For me these three loves go hand in hand. Why buy a fake wreath to adorn your door when the natural materials to make a gorgeous seasonal wreath can be grown so easily in your garden or foraged from the hedgerows? Why buy Christmas decorations shipped in from the Far East when simple ways to festoon your house can be made from cones, lichen-covered twigs and evergreens collected on a winter woodland walk? They can be thrifty, fun to make, connect you and your home with the seasons, and they can be composted when the New Year arrives.

The Crafted Garden

The Crafted Garden ©Jason Ingram

I think more and more people have grown tired of mass-manufactured products that have little or no charm, made in vast factories and shipped from the other side of the world in massive container ships. Many of us are rediscovering the pleasure in making our own or seeking out skilled craftspeople who make bespoke pieces. I think this is all a bit of a backlash against the homogeneity of the high street. Being creative is also good for us. Neuroscientists are looking into how creative tasks impact on the brain. It’s believed it can have an impact similar to meditation, and increasingly crafting is being used as a way to help people suffering from stress or mental health problems. Why do gardeners and florists regularly top the lists of people happiest in their jobs? Because there’s a real connection between a task and a visible outcome and in many cases the chance to be creative.

I’ve found crafting with natural ingredients has broadened my ideas about what I might grow in my garden or on my cut flower patch. I now regularly include flowers which dry well alongside those I pick fresh. I also look out for plants with great seed heads which I can save or pretty leaves for pressing.

 The Crafted Garden

The Crafted Garden ©Jason Ingram

For me it has also been a great way to beat those winter blues. Projects give the mind something to focus on as the light levels drop and by creating projects based on the seasons it has made me learn to appreciate what each season has to offer. I’ve always loved the weeks before Christmas and decorating my home but I can’t be the only one who really feels the gloom of January, the house bare after the winter festivities. But if you have some pots of paper white narcissi and flamboyant hippeastrums waiting in the wings to decorate a dining table or windowsill it’s amazing how they can lift the spirits and remind you spring isn’t far away.

The Crafted Garden is divided into the seasons with projects inspired by the plants and countryside of each. And, because I’m a gardener and plant lover, each project includes details of how to grow plants which could be used in the project with some other recommendations too. The projects range from ways to make your home look pretty, to floral fascinators perfect for a wedding or festival, with some ideas which would work as presents too. And there are ideas on how to craft and arrange flowers in a more environmentally friendly way. I’ve included a range of projects; some are very easy, others a little more complicated but still achievable. Lots of them are fantastic for crafting with children and inspiring them to appreciate nature.

The Crafted Garden is published on 3rd September by Frances Lincoln and is available to preorder now from Frances Lincoln, Waterstones and Amazon.

The Barn House Garden


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The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden ©Ian Curley

One of the most lovely and unexpected results of writing The Cut Flower Patch has been the people I have met as a result. I had no idea when I started out on the whole process of creating a book that people would take the time and trouble to send me lovely emails once they had read it. Last September one such email came from a lady saying she loved growing grasses too and would I like to visit her garden. It turned out that Kate didn’t live too far away from me, in the stunning Wye Valley, so a few days later Wellyman and I found ourselves discovering the most fabulous garden, tucked away in the lush countryside of Gloucestershire. We arrived and found a note on the door telling us to find her in the back garden, along with a map and sheet of paper describing the garden. We found Kate, trowel in hand, weeding. I felt a little guilty when we left three hours later that we’d taken up valuable gardening time, but Kate was a delight to talk to – passionate, knowledgeable and generous with her time. Now I’m partial to including grasses in my garden and quite a few pop up on the cut flower patch too, but I’m the first to admit my small number of grasses don’t really do the plants justice. For true drama grasses need some space and to be planted in quantity and this is what Kate has done at the Barn House Garden where a variety of grasses have been planted en masse to create a bold and dramatic impact.

The Barn House ©Ian Curley

The Barn House ©Ian Curley

I love grasses despite the fact that I’m allergic to their pollen. As Kate says, ‘isn’t a love of wild grasses/cornfields innate? To me, grasses sing of woodland margins and meadows.’ I’m very much with her on this. Her first experiences of growing grasses on an ornamental scale came when she lived near Kew Gardens where she was fascinated by their grassery and watched the Bamboo Grove being renovated. ‘These were lessons on how to tame the biggest grasses of all’, she says. Kate’s love of grasses grew when she spent time in the Far East. ‘The best thing about Taiwan is the hilly walking country and the miscanthus grasses. Then there’s the miscanthus which lines the rail-side of the bullet train in Tokyo and the bamboos colonising hillsides in Thailand. We grew bamboo on balcony gardens in Bangkok (several) and then London (hundreds!), to screen out unsightly views, noise, pollution’, Kate explains. After years on the move and then tending a small London plot. Kate and her husband Hitesh settled in the Wye Valley. ‘Never mind the nice house, we were looking for the right garden’, she says. They moved to the Barn House nine years ago and the house and garden have been transformed in that time. It’s been an epic undertaking. It took over five years to complete the landscaping of the main parts of the garden. Storm drainage has been installed, and to create level planting areas over 100 tonnes of red sandstone were removed. It’s incredible to think that what now looks like such an established garden is one where much of the planting is only three years old. This was one of the reasons behind Kate’s choice of grasses to create the structure and interest in the planting scheme – grasses tend to be quick to produce a mature look to a garden.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden ©Ian Curley

The back garden – an area which wraps around one side of the house – was tackled first. This gave Kate the chance to work out what they wanted from the rest of the garden. It’s a space which has an exotic feel to it, inspired by Kate and her husband’s time in the Far East. Towering bamboo and lush planting thrive with shots of vibrant colour from plants such as crocosmia and cannas. I love this sort of planting which envelops you and transports you to another place.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden ©Ian Curley

One of my favourite spots was the terracing which leads down to the main aspect of the house and a seating area. Using local red sandstone terraced beds were created allowing Kate to plant in what had previously been a rocky part of land with little soil depth. The grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ looks fabulous. Planted in clumps along the terrace beds they look like rockets or fireworks shooting up towards the sky. Kate has also used Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ as a dramatic 70 metre long hedge and the smaller Miscanthus sinensis ‘Starlight’ to screen a seating area.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

Kate uses grasses in the way many of us use shrubs as a foil to other plants, most notably herbaceous perennials like rudbeckias, persicarias and veronicastrums. Most of us imagine a garden planted with grasses only has a short season of interest and that a garden based around grasses would be at its peak in September but these photos show how stunning Kate’s garden looked for her midsummer NGS open day last weekend.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

Kate has discovered that there are grasses which come into their own early in the year and has cleverly planted bulbs, evergreen grasses, multi-coloured cornus and beautiful specimen trees to provide year-round interest.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden in winter (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

It’s not a surprise to discover Piet Oudolf has inspired Kate. Noel Kingsbury, Anne Wareham’s garden Veddw, just down the valley and Roger Grounds, an early pioneer of using ornamental grasses, have influenced Kate’s ideas too. One of the joys of growing grasses is discovering how easy they are to propagate. Kate grows many of her own plants from seed. And her next project – a stylised meadow – has been planted with home-grown deschampsia and molinia interplanted with perennial flowers. I can’t wait to see this come to fruition. If you’d like to see Kate’s garden the Barn House Garden is open by appointment from June to September with money from the openings going to the NGS. There’s no minimum group size and teas and plants are available to buy. It’s a stunning part of Britain if you fancy combining a visit with a weekend away. (I’m not on commission from the tourist board!! I just feel very lucky to live in this beautiful, somewhat undiscovered part of the world.) For more details you can visit Kate’s website. I can heartily recommend a visit to her website anyway as Kate is writing an online journal about growing and the changes to the garden, which makes a fascinating read and there are some gorgeous photos to drool over. Her next post, I’m reliably informed, is to be about the bamboos she saw growing alongside the Thai – Burma railway’s notorious Hellfire Pass & the incredible Australian Museum. And whilst you’re on her site have a look at the page about the history of the Barn House to discover more about this intriguing place.  

Scent in the garden, British Flowers Week and a flowery giveaway


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Home grown cut flowers

Home grown cut flowers – sweet Williams and pinks

First of all, my apologies for the lack of a May ‘Scent in the Garden’ post. Chelsea Flower Show, work, Wellyman’s final exam and then a week in Dorset have intervened and meant May has disappeared in a blur.

It just so happens that this month’s scented post coincides with British Flowers Week. This is the third year this week-long celebration of British grown blooms has taken place. Britain used to be self-sufficient in cut flowers before the advent of cheap/subsidised fuel meant it was cheaper to import flowers from across the world. In recent years a greater awareness of the environmental costs of imported flowers and a growing interest in seasonality have meant there has been a resurgence in British grown blooms. Thanks largely to a growing band of incredibly hard-working and talented small-scale flower growers across the country it’s now possible to buy super fresh, seasonal flowers with a local provenance.

Scent is one of the features so often lacking in imported blooms. Cut flowers have often been bred for other qualities – longer stems, shelf-life, ability to withstand cold stores – and scent is lost in the process. Chilled storage which keeps flowers fresh as they are transported also impacts on scent. Just think about those strawberries you pick at the allotment and how you can smell them, all warmed by the sun, now think about those from the supermarket kept chilled; the contrast is quite amazing. Growing your own flowers for cutting or seeking out British grown flowers with scent is the way to bring scent indoors. And even if you’re reluctant to pick your own flowers – I know how hard it can be when you have a small garden to take a pair of flower snips to your favourite blooms – there are so many fabulous plants that will fill your garden with scent all summer long.

For me June is a fabulous month for scented plants. Sweet Williams have started to bloom on the cut flower patch. There’s an air of the old-fashioned about them, conjuring up thatch cottages and gardens festooned with honeysuckle-clad arbours. I find them tricky in the garden though as they are quite stocky plants, they don’t tend to mingle like other plants, hence me devoting space to them on the allotment. They are biennials, so sow some now for flowers next year, but don’t feel you must dig them out after they have finished flowering in late summer, I have a clump from last year which is healthy and flowering once again. They will tend to get woody over time though so sow some every year to have young plants at the ready.

Carnation 'Memories'

Carnation ‘Memories’ ©Ian Curley

Sweet rocket is another deliciously scented biennial with the purest white flowers or dusky-pink blooms. It’s a great plant for attracting moths to your garden as its scent is much stronger on an evening. Pinks have to be one of my favourite flowers. They don’t really like my soil – it’s a tad on the acid side for their liking – but I tend to get a few years from plants before they need to be replaced with new ones. I have ‘Gran’s Favourite’ and ‘Fragrant village Pinks’ in flower at the moment, lining a bed on the cut flower patch. The white-flowered ‘Memories’ is in a container – one way around not having the chalky soil they prefer. Garden worthy plants, they also make fabulous cut flowers which I’m picking in huge bunches at the moment.

Philadelphus is a plant I remember from childhood. There was one by my parents’ gate and I used to love standing there and sniffing the flowers. It’s blooms are fleeting compared to other plants, but I wouldn’t be without the mass of white, orange blossom-scented flowers taking over a corner of my front garden at the moment, the scent drifting in through an open window into my lounge.

Rosa 'A Shropshire Lad'

Rosa ‘A Shropshire Lad’

Roses are perhaps the classic scented flower – as long as you don’t buy the imported cut flowers which never have any perfume. Currently in bloom in my garden are ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Geoff Hamilton’ and ‘A Shropshire Lad’. If you’re thinking of growing roses, now is a great time to seek out a specialist rose garden (the National Trust has some of the best rose gardens). June is their flowering peak and you can take notes of those that please your nose the most.

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber)

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) ©Ian Curley

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is an underrated plant, in my opinion. It’s incredibly easy to grow. Why do underrated and easy to grow seem to go hand in hand? OK, it does have a tendency to self-seed, but it will tolerate most soil types. If you keep on deadheading it over the summer you will curb its tendency to pop up all over the garden and encourage it to flower right through into autumn. It might not be high on lists of scented plants but it does have one. Maybe not as sweet as a rose, but lovely nonetheless, and as it’s another where the scent is strongest in the evening, it’s great for moths. There’s honeysuckle too clothing the fence in the front garden and this little beauty, Tiarella ‘Creeping Cascade’. I bought it mainly for its foliage but have discovered that its pretty flower spikes are also sweetly scented.

Tiarella 'Creeping Cascade'

Tiarella ‘Creeping Cascade’  © Ian Curley

All this scent means it’s a veritable feast for my nostrils. And they all make great vase material. If you’re a reluctant flower picker I urge you this week to celebrate British flowers, to take your flower snips into the garden and to just pick a few stems. Even if you simply plonk them in an old jam jar and put them on the kitchen windowsill I can guarantee they’ll make you smile.

In honour of British Flowers Week I’ve joined forces with two lovely ladies to offer 3 fantastic gifts. Chloe Plester of Bare Blooms and the British Flower Collective grows beautiful flowers in the garden of her home in North Oxfordshire and is offering one of her gorgeous bouquets. Sian Cornish of the online haberdashery Lancaster and Cornish uses flowers and foliage from the countryside around her Cornish home to hand-dye bamboo silk ribbons. They’re perfect for tying a bouquet, decorating a vase or embellishing a gift and she’s giving away 3 ribbons. Alongside these will be a signed copy of my book The Cut Flower Patch.

For more details on how to enter (UK entries only, sorry!) take a look at the following links.

The British Flower Collective

Bare Blooms

Lancaster and Cornish

or take a look at my Instagram page. Good luck!

Gone to Pot


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A Posh Planter from The Posh Shed Company

A Posh Planter from The Posh Shed Company

For seven years or so I gardened pretty much solely in containers. Renting meant we couldn’t do a great deal to any of the gardens that came with each new house other than mow lawns and trim hedges. In other words, the boring bits. Container growing was the only way to get my growing fix. Our pots mainly consisted of edibles. We had good crops of courgettes, French beans, tomatoes, spuds and salad leaves. To be honest though by the time we had our own patch of soil my interest in pots had rather waned. Growing in the ground was a bit of a revelation. For about 5 years I had hardly any pots and I think I found it quite liberating. Pots, particularly small ones are demanding on time with all that watering and feeding.

However, over the last few years my love of containers has been rekindled. It has taken a while, but pots have slowly started to creep back into the garden, partly because I’m running out of soil and partly because I’m learning to appreciate them all over again. There are pots by the front door, pots with succulents, and planters with herbs. But what to use as a container?

I was lucky enough the other day to receive a wooden planter for a project I’m working on. Made in Herefordshire by The Posh Shed Company it’s rather lovely – good and solid, and in a very fetching shade of blue (they’re available in a selection of other delicious colours too). You could plant directly into the planter if you lined the slatted wooden base line with an old compost bag or some plastic sheeting with holes punctured into it. I rummaged in the shed for a pot that fitted snugly inside instead. It was as I was planting this wooden container that I caught myself thinking about how the choice of pot can make such a difference to a particular display and your garden as a whole.

In the past I was rather limited in my choice of pots. Moving constantly meant I didn’t want anything too heavy and my gardening budget was quite small. If I’m honest though it was more my imagination as to what to use as a pot that was the limiting factor. Plastic was my first choice. It was cheap, practical and lightweight, but let’s face it plastic pots aren’t particularly attractive. However, as they tended to be home to courgettes and potatoes I wasn’t too bothered at the time.

Terracotta is probably the most widely used material for containers. Most of my pots were clay but I’m less fond of it now. For me, the colour seems to jar in my garden and I’m not sure it’s the best foil for many plants. I find the orange tones don’t work with pastels which dominate my planting. It’s all a bit fake tan-like for me. I still have a collection but it dwindles every year as I lose some pots to frost. I do like the older-style terracotta which tends to be less orange – more of a pale, creamy colour, and most of my succulents are at home in these terracotta pots picked up from flea markets and second-hand shops. They’re easy enough to find and generally inexpensive. I’ll often find them hidden under a table in a box covered in cobwebs and the fragile skeletons of spiders. Larger terracotta pots, especially the older ones are pricey, and one of the lessons I have learnt is that if you are growing in pots the larger the better. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a rookie gardener was to buy small pots which a plant would fill all too quickly. Often I hadn’t given much thought to proportions either. By the time the plant had reached maturity it would more often than not look like it had out grown it’s home, rather like the teenager who has had a growth spurt and is sporting half-mast trousers.

Zinc planter

Zinc planter

Gradually I’m moving away from terracotta in favour of other materials. Vintage finds are some of my favourites. Zinc baths are fabulous. If you’re after a large planter they can be excellent value for money. Flea markets and shops are the best places to find them and the cheapest. You can also find them online and in shops which specialise in gardenalia. This rectangular metal box was £10 from Malvern Flea Market. A trader had bought a job lot of them from an old garage which had closed down. They were a bit on the greasy side when we got them home but nothing a good clean couldn’t shift, and they’ve looked beautiful this spring planted up with tulips.

French enamel pots

French enamel pots

I’m a bit obsessed by vintage enamel. I’m a bit like a bloodhound who has the scent when I go to one of my favourite flea markets. These were great value – £15 for the 3 from Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival.

Bonsai pot - a home for succulents

Bonsai pot – a home for succulents

I discovered this bonsai pot on a recent shed clear out and thought it would be perfect for a few succulents.

Rusty urn

Rusty urn

Then there is this vintage urn – it’s part of a pair. Crikey, they’re heavy – hence me moving only one out of the shed for this picture – but they look amazing. Sadly they aren’t mine, I’m just looking after them until I can deliver them to a friend.

The problem with vintage stuff is that if you’re not careful your garden can start to resemble a scrap yard or flea market and that’s generally not the look you’re trying to achieve. Balancing out the use of vintage pots with other containers is one way around this.

Wood makes an excellent material for containers. Old wooden fruit crates are one of my favourites. I line them with old compost bags to stop any compost falling out and it also helps the wood to last as long as possible. They’re a particular good depth for tomato plants with some basil planted around them. Then there are the more substantial wooden planters like the one from the Posh Shed Company. Containers like this make a statement in a garden and can be a focal point in themselves. Choosing containers in colours that blend with your garden and planting scheme is another way of tying a garden together. You don’t need to spend a small fortune on having a garden specially designed. Simply using containers in complimentary colours to your house, garden and planting combinations will give your garden a harmonious feel.

For more details about wooden planters from The Posh Shed Company.

Some of my favourite places for vintage finds – Shepton Mallett and Malvern Flea Markets, Toby Buckland’s Garden Festivals, The Foodie Bugle, Mabel and Rose.

British Blooms – RHS Chelsea 2015


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The sheer amount of plant loveliness on display at the Chelsea Flower Show can be quite overwhelming. It’s also difficult to do the whole showground in just one day, so it can be hard to know where to start. This year my plan was to go with a theme in mind in the hope that this would give me some focus, particularly in the Great Pavilion.

Regular readers will know I’m a bit obsessed by home-grown cut flowers, whether they’re from my own cut flower patch or purchased from the growing number of small-scale flower farmers here in the UK. I’m always looking for new blooms that would be fabulous in a vase, or colour combinations that I could tailor my seed sowing plans towards. So what better place to start when looking for inspiration to take away with me from this year’s show?

M&S stand Blooms of the British Isles - RHS Chelsea 2015

M&S stand Blooms of the British Isles – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

It seems that the message about British cut flowers finally seems to be getting out there. Marks and Spencer chose to celebrate their suppliers of home-grown flowers with a ‘Blooms of the British Isles’ stand in the Great Pavilion. The exhibit was designed as a quadrant, divided into blocks of flowers grown in the UK to supply M&S. The centre featured a tiered stand filled with flowers which was designed to represent a huge bouquet and the different layers of blooms. Flowers included scented stocks, peonies, lady’s mantle, alliums and tulips, along with pots of moth orchids, roses and chrysanthemums. These container-grown flowers didn’t fill me with joy, they just seem to lack the movement, delicacy and impact of larger cut flowers. The element that really did appeal to me though was the boundary to the display. This was a series of blocks of individual varieties which incorporated details of where the flowers were grown – alliums in Lincolnshire, peonies in Hertfordshire and scented stocks in Norfolk. It also conveyed the sense of them being grown as a crop rather than for ornamental purposes. The leaflet which accompanied the stand included a ‘meet the growers’ section with fab photos of the flower growers and snippets of info such as how Steve Ward of Bury Lane Peonies has 23 acres devoted to growing 140,000 peonies to meet the growing demand for these stunning blooms.

Rebecca Louise Law floral installation - RHS Chelsea 2015

Rebecca Louise Law floral installation – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

The flower installation by Rebecca Louise Law which hung above the heads of people as they used the walkway which links Main Avenue to the rest of the showground was such a clever idea, particularly for an area which might otherwise be neglected. She’d used a mixture of dried flowers and fresh, tied in bunches, which were then suspended from the roof. Unfortunately on Monday the walkway was like a huge wind tunnel which meant walking through it was like the tornado scene from the Wizard of Oz. Combine the wind with low light levels and it made it tricky to get a good photograph. I’m a huge fan of dried flowers, so I’ve come away with a few ideas for new ways to use them around my home.

Verbascum 'Merlin' - Matthew Wilson's Royal Bank of Canada Garden

Verbascum ‘Merlin’ – Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada Garden ©Ian Curley

I’m always looking for new flowers and foliage which could find a way on to my cutting patch. Verbascums and geums were the two most popular flowers on the show gardens this year. I think Verbascum ‘Merlin’, used on both Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada Garden and Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden, was my favourite. It’s just such a pretty colour, subtle with a slightly faded quality about it that makes me think of antique fabric. I haven’t grown verbascums at home before; they need well-drained soil which might mean winter wet would see them off in my garden, but I’d certainly love to give them a go.

Geum 'Totally Tangerine' - RHS Chelsea 2015

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

Cow parsley has become a bit of a planting cliché at Chelsea in recent years. This part of London has done a passable impression of a spring hedgerow for a week every May for the last couple of years. It’s common for one plant to prove popular with designers year after year – plants which perform reliably each May regardless of the vagaries of the British weather are bound to be favoured by plant nurseries and designers. But even die-hard cow parsley lovers were starting to get a bit sick of seeing it. I’m one of those fans of naturalistic plants and delicate hedgerow frothiness, but I was pleased to see that there was much less of it around this year, although designers haven’t been able to let go of it completely. This time it was the turn of Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ to be totally everywhere. Launched in 2005 by Hardy’s Cottage Plants there’s talk of the shelves being cleared of it due to its Chelsea popularity this year. As a cut flower it apparently has a lot going for it – it’ll bloom throughout the summer and the long stems are perfect for the vase. I think it’s such a cheerful colour and I can see it working well with late-flowering tulips and wallflowers to make some gorgeous late spring/early summer arrangements and later on in the season with dahlias.

Antirrhinum 'Pretty in Pink' - RHS Chelsea 2015

Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’ – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

The Great Pavilion is the place to look out for new introductions and I spotted this snapdragon on the Hardy’s stand. Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’ is the first truly perennial form, it blooms all summer long and has good resistance to the fungal disease rust to which snapdragons are so prone. It’s another which won’t like sitting in wet soils, so it would be worth providing extra drainage and giving it some protection in winter.

Fritillaria acmopetala - RHS Chelsea 2015

Fritillaria acmopetala – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

I love green flowers. They’re so unusual and striking and work well in a vase as they can provide the focal point or be a foil for other more colourful blooms. So what about this Fritillaria acmopetala on the Avon Bulbs stand? I love the little turn up at the base of the bell-shaped flowers – it reminds me of a bob hair cut where the ends have been flicked outwards. The delicate veining, the hints of gold and flashes of maroon all make it a very intriguing flower. This wouldn’t be a plant to provide bunches of flowers but I can imagine just a couple of stems in a simple vase would make such a pretty display.

Adam Frost's Homebase Garden - RHS Chelsea 2015

Adam Frost’s Homebase Garden – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

Orange was the colour of Chelsea 2015. Rust-coloured metalwork featured in several gardens from Chris Beardshaw’s with its sculpture and the rusty panels of Adam Frost’s Homebase Garden, to the rusted tin can sculptures on Sean Murray’s garden. Tones of rust were found in the planting too particularly on the Pure Land Foundation Fresh Garden with Iris germanica ‘Kent Pride’ and the newly-introduced Foxglove Illumination Series ‘Apricot’. Elsewhere there were the striking orange Californian poppies and Libertia peregrinans on Matthew Wilson’s garden. And the lighter, almost apricot colour of the Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ (it looks more apricot than tangerine to me) added a zing across the showground.

Lithodora and rusty metal - RHS Chelsea 2015

Lithodora and rusty metal – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

As for how to use orange, well how about this combination which packs a punch, the blue flowers of lithodora against a rust-coloured container I spotted on one of the trade stands? It’s a mix of colours I hope I can replicate in a vase this summer using Salvia patens and a variety of orangey dahlias, strawflowers and pot marigolds.

Plummy planting - RHS Chelsea 2015

Plummy planting – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

Dark purples and rich plums were in evidence too. Lupins seem to be making a comeback. I’ve come around to many ‘old-fashioned’ plants in recent years from gladioli to chrysanthemums but I’m still not convinced by these rocket-shaped blooms. I do love the colour combination of this planting on the Alitex greenhouse stand though. And the clashing of dark colours with bright on Chris Beardshaw’s garden with purple irises and salivas placed next to orange geums is truly sumptuous. Using colours like this can be tricky to pull off, whether it’s in the garden or in a floral arrangement. We’ve all seen bouquets of gaudily-coloured flowers shoved together which really don’t work. Taking ideas from the masters of planting like Chris Beardshaw and applying that to the flowers you grow and use for cutting is one way of dipping your foot into the water.

Scrummy planting on Chris Beardshaw's Morgan Stanley Garden - RHS Chelsea 2015

Scrummy planting on Chris Beardshaw’s Morgan Stanley Garden – RHS Chelsea 2015 ©Ian Curley

So that’s plenty of ideas and images to inspire me this winter as I come up with my cut flower plans for next summer.

Windswept and Interesting – RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015


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Protea on Charles Albone's Time in Between Garden

Protea on Charles Albone’s Time in Between Garden © Ian Curley

I spent yesterday immersed in plants, from orchids and exotic proteas to classic English roses and native elm trees. There were gardens created by the best designers and plantspeople from Britain and beyond. One enormous marquee – the Great Pavilion – a temple to plant passion with nurseries from across the country. There were sculptures, greenhouses and all manner of garden-related bit and bobs. This was press day at RHS Chelsea Flower Show and it really doesn’t get much better than this for someone who loves plants.

On a cold, grey morning in south-west London someone had clearly forgotten to mention to the weather that it was meant to be spring and, as if on cue, the spots of rain started to fall just as we entered the showground at 8am. Press Day is the day when suits, summery frocks and fabulous hats abound. Exhibitors, designers and sponsors want to look their best for the press calls, photos and, later in the day, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family. I had huge admiration for those ladies who had looked out of the window that morning and had disregarded the weather forecasts and thought ‘I’m wearing those heels and floaty dress regardless’. Then there were the rest of us in waterproofs huddled under umbrellas trying desperately to stay warm. Later on that morning Anneka Rice would enter the Great Pavilion looking like it was a summer’s day outside despite the fact that a deluge of rain was pounding the roof. I’ve always been somewhat in awe of women who manage to look glamorous in situations when I look bedraggled and windswept. I’m sure Anneka must have had lots of those heat pads strategically stitched into her dress, as I was wishing I’d worn a second pair of socks and some thermals at that point. I think she must win the award for smile of the day – like the ray of sunshine we were hoping would come from the sky at some point.

Despite the weather the plants shone and looking back now through the photos you really can’t tell that it felt more like March than May. A testament to all the hard work that goes into creating these gardens and the nurturing of plants over the previous months and, of course, Wellyman’s lovely photos.

Dan Pearson's Chatsworth inspired garden

Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth inspired garden © Ian Curley

I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth inspired garden and Jo Thompson’s design with its natural swimming pool. Seriously, I’m like a child before Christmas in the period before Chelsea. These two gardens, in particular, had caught my eye because they looked so different from the more typical Chelsea show garden. I often find some of the show gardens to be a little too similar – very masculine, blocky and sometimes a bit too slick for me, very suited to their sponsors and potential clients in the City but no spaces I can warm to. The space alongside Main Avenue is divide up into rectangles which need to be viewed from two sides, both elements which create restrictions on the designer from the start. It could also be why some of the more successful and unusual gardens in recent years have been those off Main Avenue where they have a slightly different footprint.

Dan Pearson's Chatsworth Garden for Laurent Perrier

Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth Garden for Laurent Perrier © Ian Curley

Dan Pearson’s garden inhabits the triangular-shaped spot at the end of Main Avenue. Viewed from all sides, unlike the other gardens, this can prove tricky, but Dan had requested this spot specifically. Dan Pearson is one of the UK’s most successful designers, but it has been over a decade since he last designed a garden at the show. His return has been much-anticipated by fans of his naturalistic planting and take on garden design. His garden this year for Laurent Perrier has been based around the landscape and gardens of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Enormous boulders chosen from the estate perched, some of them seemingly precariously, in the space. Around these stones the garden trod the boundary between wild and cultivated. Water meandered through the garden inspired by the trout stream at Chatsworth. The attention to detail was incredible. Honestly I’ve never seen anything like it. My eye was drawn initially to a patch of grasses with red campions and leaf litter mixed in amongst it. Initial thoughts were this had to have been there before the build started and that it was perhaps a piece of the ground poking through from the pre-Chelsea build; it looked just like a patch of woodland glade or hedgerow verge. But, as I took in the rest of the garden, it became clear this had been created. And it really was fabulous. It wasn’t a wow garden in an obvious luscious planting, stunning hard landscaping way. For me, both Jo Thompson’s and Matthew Wilson’s gardens wowed me straight away. Dan’s garden however was much more of a slow burner. I just wanted to keep looking at all of the details then I’d spot something else, another plant like a delightful white ragged robin, or the way the plants mingled together so naturally. This is what made it so different from so many other gardens. From what I have read about Dan and from interviews I have seen with him this very much seemed like a garden which reflected its designer; quiet, thoughtful, unshowy. The judges loved it too, awarding it a gold medal and Best in Show.

Lychnis flos-cuculi 'White Robin' on Dan Pearson's garden

Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘White Robin’ on Dan Pearson’s garden © Ian Curley

Jo Thompson’s Writer’s Retreat Garden for M&G Investments takes its inspiration from Vita Sackvile-West’s writing room at Sissinghurst in Kent. Jo and her all-female planting team have created a stunning, feminine garden with voluptuous plantings of roses and species I recognised from my cut flower patch, such as ammi, ridolfia and Gypsophila ‘Covent Garden’. These mingle around the base of an impressive multi-stemmed Betula nigra with fabulously textural, peeling bark – the pinky-apricot tones cleverly reflected in the spires of foxglove ‘Sutton’s Apricot’.

Betula nigra and Digitalis 'Sutton's Apricot' on Jo Thompson's M&G Retreat Garden

Betula nigra and Digitalis ‘Sutton’s Apricot’ on Jo Thompson’s M&G Retreat Garden © Ian Curley

A richly planted backdrop of trees and shrubs creates a lush boundary and the natural swimming pool looked inviting. I think Jo’s garden is a real stunner and feel slightly disappointed for her and her team that the garden received silver-gilt and not gold, particularly as other gardens which didn’t appeal to me so much won gold.

Jo Thompson's M&G Retreat Garden

Jo Thompson’s M&G Retreat Garden © Ian Curley

Matthew Wilson’s garden for the Royal Bank of Canada is inspired by Beth Chatto and his experience of previously managing the gardens at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex, where rainfall levels are similar to those in Beirut. Designed around the idea of a garden which uses water sustainably, the zero-irrigation ‘dry garden’ is packed with beautiful planting. Verbascum ‘Merlin’ was the first to catch my eye, followed by the shrubby Leptospermum scoparium ‘Red Damask’.

Verbascum 'Merlin' - Matthew Wilson's Royal Bank of Canada Garden

Verbascum ‘Merlin’ – Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada Garden © Ian Curley

Clumps of striking Californian poppies contrasted with the purple flower spikes of Salvia nemorosa ‘Mainacht’ I started to hanker after my own gravel garden. The dramatic 150-year old macro-bonsai olive tree is spectacular and the steamed ash benches with their sinuous lines crafted by Cornish designer Tom Raffield must surely win the award for the most stunning seats at Chelsea. One of my top three gardens this year.

Matthew Wilson's Royal Bank of Canada Garden

Matthew Wilson’s Royal Bank of Canada Garden © Ian Curley

You have to be prepared for every eventuality when it comes to the British weather. Swirling winds, low light levels in the Great Pavilion and lashing rain in the morning made photography and note taking tricky particularly as I was often juggling a tripod, umbrella, and notepad. My propped up umbrella nearly took out a couple of plants on a few occasions. I had visions of me being escorted from the showground for taking out an exhibit. Pollen and the tiny barbed seed pods of London plane trees planted around the periphery of the showground whipped up by the wind left most of sneezing, coughing and scratching our eyes, rather ironically like a plant-based biological weapon had been unleashed on Chelsea. We both did passable impressions of a cat coughing up a fur ball on the journey home.

Despite all of this the plants came out on top and I’ve come home brimming with ideas. Mid-May can be a tricky time for gardeners frustrated by the weather and exhausted by the demands of a spring garden. Chelsea is just the fillip this gardener needed.


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