Sunday, 1 March 2015

Book review: First Ladies of Gardening

I wrote two books about gardens last year (the second one, Great Gardens of London, is published on 1 October), so - ungrateful and unbelievable as it may seem - I'm feeling a little bit jaded when it comes to looking at pictures of beautiful gardens. I'd rather look at my own garden for a bit, chaotic though it may be.
However, out of a sense of loyalty to my publishers, Frances Lincoln, and photographer Marianne Majerus, who worked with me on the London book, I agreed to review First Ladies of Gardening, by Heidi Howcroft, which is published on Thursday, 5 March.
The book arrived in the post, I ripped off the packaging and ... what followed was reminiscent of the scene in When Harry Met Sally, when Meg Ryan does her impression of a woman in the throes of ecstasy. Open the book at a random page: "OOOHHHH!" Turn to another chapter: "OOOHHH!"
This book is beautiful. It's so beautiful, it is almost edible, from the end-papers which show Himalayan blue poppies growing among aquilegias and cow parsley at Sleightholmedale Lodge in Yorkshire, to the glowing asters in the long herbaceous border at Waterperry, near Oxford.
Whenever an author produces a selection of gardens or gardeners, this choice is always the subject of debate. Why didn't he or she choose this person, or that person? Why include this garden and not that garden?
Publishing insiders will know that the reasons for this are many and various, and not always within the author's control. It could be that a particular garden is to be featured in an upcoming book, as yet unpublished, and the publishers don't want their books to seem too repetitive.
It could be that the author found some gardens or gardeners more inspiring to write about, for whatever reason. (For example, I like writing about gardens where I can really get under the skin of the owner or designer. In some very "grand" gardens, this is quite difficult.)
It could be that there were practical problems; the National Trust, for example, charges photographers by the hour to photograph their properties. If you are on a tight budget, and everybody in publishing is,  you don't tend to include many National Trust properties.
There doesn't seem much point, therefore, in quarrelling with the author's compilation - but if you were in the mood for a debate, then Heidi and Marianne have set out their reasoning in the Foreword to the book.
Essentially, what they have done is to trace the development of domestic garden design in Britain during the past 100 years, using the women who have done most to influence it as milestones. They concentrate specifically on women who have created their own gardens, whether they are amateurs, such as Gill Richardson and Sue Whittington, or professionals like Mary Keen and Beth Chatto.
Perhaps because all these gardens are personal conceptions, the results are very inspirational and surprisingly easy to translate into your own plot. Sue Whittington's garden in Highgate, north London, features a hornbeam hedge, clipped into arches, which masks a high blank wall. It's a great idea for anyone with a town garden surrounded by tall buildings to copy.
Gill Richardson's garden, Manor Farm in Lincolnshire, offers some mouthwatering vistas, but one of the most effective pieces of planting involves just two plants - Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau' and Gaura lindheimeri. The white flowers of the gaura seem to be suspended in thin air amid the golden stems of the deschampsia, or tufted hair grass.
Indeed, what strikes you as you leaf through the book ("OOOHH!! OOOHHH!") is how much we have loosened our gardening corsets when it comes to our planting styles.
I'd love to know what Beatrix Havergal's students at Waterperry (pictured on page 46 in their regulation uniforms of jackets, hats, collars and ties and tunics over breeches and woollen stockings) would say if they saw us gardening today in running gear, T-shirts and trackies.
It would be equally fascinating to know what they thought of the way that the traditional Arts and Crafts template for British gardens has been softened and smoothed out by the addition of wildflower meadows, grasses, and borders where plants are allowed to billow and sway.
I do have one criticism of this book, which is the omission of captions here and there. Each chapter opens with a one and a half page picture of that garden, but there's no caption as far as I can see - not on the opening spread nor on the next page. The end-papers, featuring the blue poppies, aren't captioned either. Where they have provided captions, Heidi and Marianne are very good at giving full details of the planting, so it would be nice to have one on every single image.
I know from experience that Marianne works incredibly hard on her shoots. You don't get to be an award-winning photographer by rocking up, taking a few snaps, and drifting off again. She has an ability to make a garden that already looks good look even more fabulous, which is a very special talent if you are including gardens that have been photographed hundreds of times before.
I don't mean that she Photoshops her pictures or uses any photographic trickery - she just seems to make the garden look even more ideal, if that doesn't sound too Platonic.
The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Rosemary Verey's Barnsley House, Mary Keen's garden, and Kiftsgate are all gardens I know well, and yet Marianne seems to be able to provide a new perspective; to make them jump out of the page at you.
If you want an overview of some of Britain's most influential women gardeners; if you want to look at gorgeous pictures of gardens; if you just want to sound like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, then First Ladies of Gardening might be just the book you need.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

Colesbourne Park is one of the gardens featured in my new book, Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, and although it may seem a bit unfair to have favourites, this is a garden for which I have a sneaking affection.
First, it's a snowdrop garden, only open at weekends from the end of January to the beginning of March. I think there is a certain poignancy about gardens which have one particular moment in which to shine, especially if that moment is during one of the miserable months of the year.
Second, Colesbourne has an interesting history, not only from a horticultural point of view, but also in terms of social change during the past 100 years.
Before the First World War, there were 14 glasshouses at Colesbourne, each with its own microclimate, and a gardening staff of 10. Its owner, Henry John Elwes, was a British botanist and plant hunter, who discovered Galanthus elwesii, the large snowdrop named after him, near what is now Izmir in Turkey.
Elwes amassed an impressive bulb collection, but he was also interested in trees, and co-wrote The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland with Augustine Henry. His great-grandson, Sir Henry Elwes, who now runs the estate with his wife Carolyn, told me a wonderful story of how Henry John Elwes turned to his wife after lunch one day and said: "Wrap up the ham, my dear, I'm off to see a tree." The tree was the monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana), and he was going to see it in its native habitat: Chile.
Like many country estates in Britain, Colesbourne bears the scars of two world wars. After the 1914-18 war, a shortage of labour meant that the days of gardening on the scale of Henry John's collection were numbered. The house was requisitioned during the Second World War and when the present Sir Henry inherited the estate in the Fifties, the house was derelict. Much of the garden was choked with brambles and it was while trying to clear these that Lady Elwes discovered clumps of snowdrops flourishing beneath.
Today, Colesbourne has an impressive snowdrop collection, but part of its charm is that you can see snowdrops growing as they would in the wild, you can see them growing in the spring garden alongside other winter flowers such as hellebores and cyclamen, and you can get up close and personal with the really choice varieties in the formal garden behind the house.
One of the most impressive things about Colesbourne, however, is not a flower but the lake, which has the most amazing turquoise-blue colour thanks to the colloidal clay suspended in the water (below).

I visited yesterday, accompanied by VP who had just returned from visiting yet more snowdrop gardens but was keen to see Colesbourne. The weather forecast predicted a dull, dank day, but luckily the Met Office was completely wrong. (Now there's a thing!) It was a lovely day, with brilliant sunshine.

There are more than 250 different trees at Colesbourne and one of the innovations this year will be the arboretum tours, which will be led either by Sir Henry, or by the head gardener, Chris Horsfall.

Yesterday, though, the snowdrops were the main focus, and they looked spectacular.

This is Galanthus elwesii 'Mrs McNamara', apparently named after Dylan Thomas's mother-in-law.
"Hmm, she's gone over a bit," observed VP.  I expect Dylan Thomas felt the same way about his mother-in-law.

Colesbourne are good at labelling their snowdrops, but it's also lovely just to look at sheets and sheets of the fragrant white flowers. I never used to see the point of all those snowdrop varieties, and I'm still a long way from being a galanthophile, but Chris Horsfall has managed to turn me into someone who at least knows the difference between Galanthus woronowii (bright green glossy leaves) and, say, Galanthus elwesii 'Comet' (large U-shaped green mark on the inner petals).
I know that Heyrick Greatorex (what a name - it sounds like someone clearing their throat) bred double hybrid snowdrops and named them after female characters from Shakespeare, and I know that Galanthus plicatus 'Augustus' (one of VP's favourites) is named after E A Bowles, whose middle name was Augustus. I'm beginning to scare myself!

I had never grown Cyclamen coum before I moved to the Cotswolds - my garden in London was not damp enough. I now have some that I bought from Colesbourne last year, and they are delightful partners for snowdrops.

The marbled foliage makes a good foil for snowdrop flowers, and the combination of pink and white on a sunny day is quite mouth-watering. Both plants emerge and die down at roughly the same time, and like the same conditions; a sheltered spot beneath deciduous trees that's not too damp, but doesn't dry out completely. 

It has become popular in the past few years to plant snowdrops "in the green", which has advantages for gardeners. You can see exactly where they are going to go and how they are going to look, and they seem to do better. However, experts like Chris Horsfall and John Grimshaw, Chris's predecessor at Colesbourne and arguably the UK's greatest snowdrop expert, say that it is best to plant them when they are dormant - i.e. as bulbs.
If this is true, why do we amateurs have more success planting them in the green? Well, part of the problem is the way bulbs are supplied to the UK. Commercial growers in Turkey let the bulbs dry out before packaging them up, and once they reach Britain, they sit around on displays in garden centres and supermarkets. Hardly the ideal environment for a plant that likes a humus-rich soil on the edges of woodland and along hedgerows.
The best compromise, as far as I can see, would be to buy the bulbs in the green from a good source, such as Colesbourne, and let them go over while they are still in the pot. Then plant them in the garden once the foliage has started to wither.

So which snowdrops do I have in my garden? I'll tell you about them in my next post.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

How about a tulip called 'Bob'?

I've just finished planting my tulips, which - as ever - was a task that was well overdue. It's the same every year. I order tulips (and narcissi) in early autumn, they arrive, they languish in the shed. Sometimes they get planted by the end of February, sometimes not.
The trouble is, I find the bulb catalogues irresistible, with their fabulous colours and promises of a gorgeous display. Then life intervenes, and just at the moment when I should be planting the darned things, I find that my time is taken up with other projects.
This year, I had a rush of blood to the head and decided to order some "Rembrandt" tulips as well as the white 'Purissima' which are one of my favourites. "Rembrandt" is the name now given to any tulip varieties that have streaks or flames. These are not the old "broken" tulips, which were the result of a virus, but modern cultivars that are bred to look like the antique varieties.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I'm now wondering whether a garden full of stripy tulips will look a bit strange. Never mind - most of them look as if they will tone in with each other (at least according to the catalogue pictures), and I have ordered some plain varieties as well.
As I potted them all up (I grow them in pots to stop squirrels digging up the bulbs), it occurred to me that in future, I should base my tulip choices on the length of the name rather than the colour or the stripes or whatever. Trying to fit Tulipa 'Flaming Spring Green' or Tulipa 'Veronique Sanson' onto a 5ins plastic plant label when you have large handwriting and a thick marker pen is no joke.
Of course, one can resort to abbreviations, but I wonder if, come May, I shall look at a squiggle that says something like T. Rime Fantasist and remember that it marks a pot of Tulipa 'Rems Favourite'? Why can't they call tulips something simple like 'Bob' or 'Ted'?

White 'Purissima' tulips growing in a pot in on the terrace last spring. Behind are the purple blooms of Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', which in my garden is never out of flower.

Tulipa 'Apricot Beauty' in flower last spring with Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', the new spring foliage of Sedum telephium 'Herbstfreude', the white broom Cytisus praecox 'Albus' and the lime-green flower heads of Euphorbia characias subs. wulfenii

It isn't only in the garden that my good intentions turn to dust. I always vow that I'll be ready for Christmas, and it very rarely turns out that way.
Some things went according to plan this year, mainly because other people were in charge of them. The Christmas lights on my house were on by 1 December, thanks to my friend Ollie who sorts them out each year. Why so early? Well, Ollie had to go to Moscow at the beginning of December to help set up an exhibition commemorating the Sochi Winter Olympics (he'd worked on the opening and closing ceremonies), and it seemed only fair that he should see the lights go on before he went.
My daughter did the Christmas tree, which looked beautiful, and both my children and their partners devoted their time to keeping their grandmother amused and ensuring that no Summerley Christmas traditions (such as watching Morecambe and Wise, playing cards and charades, and doing jigsaws) went forgotten.
One of the highlights of Christmas in Bibury is the Boxing Day duck race, which raises money for charity and for the local cricket club. To our amazement, my mother was the winner, with duck no. 15. (Look at the bottom of the list, and you will see Rufus had a bet on duck no. 26.)
The winner doesn't actually win anything, but has the honour of deciding which charity the money should go to. My mother, who has a narrowboat, chose the RNLI, the Lifeboats charity.

The word "race" is a relative term where the Bibury duck race is concerned. I have seen paint dry faster. It must be the only race where you hear the starting pistol go, and then have to wait about an hour for anything to go past 100 yards downriver.

Part of the fun is watching the real ducks (see the one on the far left?) react to a river full of decoy ducks.

A closer view shows that it is actually quite easy to spot the decoy ducks - they are usually upside down.

The main duck race is followed by the yellow duck race, which has a cash prize of 100 pounds. However, my mother was thrilled with her "win" and she is looking forward to presenting a cheque for more than 2,000 pounds to the RNLI at our local pub, the Catherine Wheel, on 23 January.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Grand plans and cutting gardens

Winter is the time for gardeners to plan and dream. Somehow, the backbreaking chores and the never-ending weeding don't seem so dispiriting when you're sitting in front of a log fire with a gardening book and a cup of tea. You can conveniently forget that you haven't yet planted all your bulbs and start thinking about next summer's display.
My grand plan for next summer is to start a cutting garden. I still have two enormous borders to clear and plant (three if you count the one I am halfway through), so I shouldn't really be thinking about a new project. However, the border clearance has in part inspired the idea of the cutting garden.
Wouldn't it be nice (I thought to myself) if, instead of heaving out huge chunks of weeds and tracking down the root runs of nettles for days on end, I could just put a couple of raised beds straight down onto a bit of spare lawn (of which I have plenty), fill them up with topsoil, sow some seeds and reap beautiful bouquets for months on end. The prudent, less impulsive part of me thinks I might invest in some raised-bed liners too. I don't want to start digging nettles and ground elder out of yet another bit of the garden.
Now, I know what you are going to say. This is a fashion to which I have fallen victim. And it is true that cutting gardens are in vogue at the moment, thanks to people like Sarah Raven, and Rachel de Thame, who recently presented a cutting garden diary on BBC Gardeners' World.
I've also just bought Louise Curley's book, The Cut Flower Patch, published earlier this year by Frances Lincoln, which is a good practical guide to not only what to grow, but how to arrange it. It seems to me that when everyone is talking about something, that's a good time to find out about it.
Why, you might ask, would I need a cutting garden when I already have a garden full of plants? Well, why do some people have allotments when they could easily grow vegetables in their own garden?
I want to grow flowers as a crop, for the house, in exactly the same way as many people grow veg. I don't have a particularly flowery garden - I love foliage plants, such as grasses, and I like an evergreen structure that looks good all year round. In a cutting garden, I can indulge myself with a glorious kaleidoscope of colourful annuals without worrying about how it will fit in with everything else.
The picture below shows my friend Sue O'Neill's flower garden, which looks fabulous (I love those Rip City dahlias). I never seem to be able to get that look, maybe because I'm too anal about what I plant with what. I'm hoping a cutting patch might loosen up my ideas a bit.

Taking the lawn view

We had the first frost of the winter on Thursday morning. It was the cue for me to rush outside to take photographs, and to see if the wasps in the nest above my daughter's bedroom window had been zapped by the cold. There was no sign of the little blighters, so I hope they have succumbed.

The tabloid papers in the UK have been running lurid stories predicting "the worst winter for 100 years", but on a crisp frosty morning, when the clumps of santolina look like an edging of grey fur,  it is difficult to take a negative view of the impending winter.

On the other hand, it is all too easy to take a negative view of the lawns. There is way too much lawn in my garden, and although I have spent quite a lot of the past two years creating new borders, they are still too narrow to be in proportion.
Cutting out borders is back-breaking work, involving a half-moon edger to cut through the turf or the weeds, a spade and a lot of huffing and puffing. There are so many thuggish perennial weeds, I can't just rotavate it, and I hate using weedkiller.
My soil is typical Cotswold clay and limestone, which isn't as bad as it sounds. The limestone is comparatively soft, and breaks down easily, so I never have to dig out huge boulders, and the thousands of small stones that litter the soil help it warm up in spring and keep it drained (well, sort of) in long periods of wet weather.
Clay soil holds on to nutrients well, but is difficult to work in winter, when the mud clings to your spade and boots. At times you feel as if you are slowly accumulating your own weight in mud. Come to think of it, you probably are.
The trouble is, there are other parts of the garden that require attention more urgently than this bit. So the lawns will have to wait a while. In the meantime, I'll console myself with thinking up outrageous plans for an elaborate parterre, with gazons coup├ęs (where patterns are cut into the turf and filled with sand or gravel) and lavender hedges.
It will never come to fruition of course, but the planning is half the fun, don't you find?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Suddenly, there was a pond: Part 3

I was running 10 days late on the b**k by the time Pete was ready to start planting the pond, so when he asked me if I wanted to go to the wholesale nursery with him to choose plants, I was in a bit of a dilemma.
On the one hand, I should have been working; and having been in and out of London every day for most of September, the last thing I wanted to do was to spend four hours on the motorway (two hours there, two hours back) AGAIN. On the other hand, several herds of wild horses would have been necessary to prevent me from going.

The nursery Pete uses is called North Hill Nurseries, in Chobham, Surrey. It's strictly trade only, but I was very impressed by the range and the quality of the plants. Considering this was the beginning of October, they had a fantastic selection - most of the retail nurseries have either sold out of everything by now, or the plants look pretty sorry for themselves. These Actaea matsumurae 'White Pearl' caught my eye immediately.

I knew I wanted lots of grasses, because they give a very natural, fluid effect, and pretty good year-round interest as well. In winter, the fluffy seed heads add texture to the garden, and look fabulous covered in frost.

These are schizostylis, or kaffir lily, part of the huge selection of perennials available. I didn't buy these, but I have admired them in Patient Gardener's front garden, so it may be just a matter of time before I acquire some.

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'! I have been dying to get my sticky little paws on one of these for ages. A must-have - AND they are resistant to honey fungus.

More fabulous perennials. Pete was trying to persuade me to get some astilbes but I have an irrational prejudice against these plants. I don't know why - perhaps because I think the bright pink ones look so unnatural. I'd rather have something like Aruncus dioicus.

Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle' - a really lovely white hydrangea which looks good anywhere.

And here's the finished pond! Well, not quite finished, because the electrician has to come and connect the pump cable to the electricity supply. Pete and his team filled it with just enough water to submerge the marginals and the water lily in the centre, but we've had so much rain recently, the level has already risen by at least an inch.

The cats don't seem to mind the loss of their lavatory - they seem delighted with their new drinking fountain.

I can't wait to see the waterfall running. In the meantime, I am going to start planting the surrounding area to match the pond planting. Just before the waterfall meets the pond, there is a stepping stone across, so I'm going to create some sort of path around the pond here. I'll probably use gravel.

There are so many plants here: miscanthus; phormiums - a variety I hadn't seen before called 'Surfer Bronze'; Physocarpus (a purple one and a gold-leaved one); hostas; ferns; Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'; hardy geraniums; foxgloves; asters; Japanese anemones ('Honorine Jobert'). The list goes on and on. It's got a sort of prairie look to it, which I love (if you can have a prairie next to a pond). 

The best thing about the pond (apart from the fact that it's a gorgeus pond) is that it provides a focus for this bit of the garden, which has always looked a bit scruffy. I'm now much more inspired about what to do with the rest of it  - I'll plant the same sort of things up the slope here and continue the theme.
Did I do the planting round the pond myself? Are you kidding? Pete and his team did it. If it had been left to me, it would all still be sitting in pots on the drive.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Suddenly, there was a pond: Part 2

So, the pond was dug, the concrete rendering was done, the underlay and the butyl rubber liner had gone down, and it was time to start putting the stone into place.
I have to stress that this is an expensive way to build a pond. It's perfectly possible to dig a hole, line it with butyl rubber (use sand and underlay beneath it), put a bit of stone round the edge to make it look pretty, fill it up with water and away you go.
However, I wanted a natural pond, and the problem with putting stone only around the edge is that in order to hide every bit of liner, the stone has to overhang. (Otherwise, in summer when the water tends to evaporate slightly, you can see black liner.) This means it's more difficult for creatures such as frogs to get in and out.
To get around this problem, you can have a gently sloping "beach" area, but because my garden gently slopes both north to south and east to west, it would have been difficult to make this look level while at the same time keeping it stable. It was easier, and looks better, to have shelf areas within the pond, and to cover the liner completely with stone and gravel.

In the picture above,  you can see the black pipe that will take the water from the pump to the top of the waterfall.

Here's another view: you can see the black pipe disappearing under the jetty, where the pump is housed. Notice the border of liner around the pond? Read on and you will see how that disappears.

This area to the right of the jetty, with all the gravel, is the reed bed, which will keep the pond water healthy. This works on the same principle as a domestic reed bed sewage system, and although I'm not a freshwater biologist, I'll have a go at explaining how that works.
Reeds are able to transfer oxygen from their leaves down to their roots, which is how they survive in a waterlogged habitat. This creates both aerobic and anaerobic conditions in the soil, which encourages a huge range of micro-organisms to flourish. These micro-organisms break down the waste, and the reeds themselves take up a certain amount in the form of nutrition.
In the past, in smaller ponds, I've used a UV clarifier, but there are lots of reasons NOT to use these. First, if the bulb goes (which it does once a year in my experience), the clarifier stops working - and very often, if you have a modern trip system, the dead bulb trips the fusebox. Not amusing in the middle of winter.
Second, the flow rate has to be just right. If it is too fast, the water passes through the clarifier without being treated. If it is too slow, the algae can reproduce quicker than the clarifier can treat the water.
Third, the clarifier only treats algae - not blanket weed (or string algae). Fourth, a UV clarifier uses electricity, and while it doesn't cost that much in the great scheme of things, I feel a bit guilty about using power when I don't need to.
It seemed to me much more sensible to have a eco-system that would look after itself and create a healthy habitat for pond life naturally.

Now that the top of the waterfall area has been lined in stone, it's beginning to look as if it has always been there. The idea was to replicate a natural stone "outcrop" on the slope. Here's Rufus making one of his regular tours of inspection here. I had no idea he was such an expert on landscape architecture.

The jetty is finished! I suspect this will be everyone's favourite place to sit come next summer. You can see how the stone has been laid to hide the edge of the liner, and also hide the pump under the jetty.

This gives a better view of how the waterfall comes down into the pond. The guys have laid the stone following the lines of the rock strata, which also helps it look natural.
It had taken eight days of work to get to this stage, and the build schedule was 10 days in total. It was time to start thinking about plants - and I'll tell you about that in my next post.