Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Miriam Goldberger's Wildflower Farm

After attending the Garden Bloggers' Fling in Toronto last weekend, a few of us stayed on for a trip to Miriam Goldberger's Wildflower Farm. Miriam and her husband Paul Jenkins produce not only wildflower seeds for gardeners, but also "eco-lawn" seeds and other grasses which can be used for bio-fuel.
They do all this themselves, in a delightfully low-tech way, under the supervision of Penny, their gorgeous dog.

We'd had a lot of rain in Toronto, but our farm visit was blessed with fine weather; so hot, in fact, that a few of us joined Penny in seeking shade under the trees. The wildflower meadows won't peak until August, but there were still enough flowers to keep us happy - mainly false indigo (Baptisia australis), beardtongue, or wild penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus), golden alexander (Zizia aurea) and wild lupin (Lupinus perennis), the Texas bluebonnet's tall cousin.

This is blue false indigo, but Miriam and Paul also have yellow and cream-flowered versions

Bladder campion, or Silene vulgaris. We don't see this as much as we used to in the UK these days, so it was sad to hear that this is considered a weed in North America. It looks so pretty here with the grass - and I can think of lots of weeds I would rather NOT have in my garden!

Beardtongue, or wild penstemon. I love this plant, and although it isn't native to the UK, I'm going to grow it in my meadow patch.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), just coming into flower. Now, this is the sort of wild flower I would be a bit dubious about growing, since I have a garden full of thuggish umbellifers, rampant ground elder (goutweed to American readers) and stubborn docks. Wild quinine can reach a metre tall, and it looks like the sort of thing that would take over a whole border if you turned your back for five minutes. However, this is a member of the aster family, it has long been used as a remedy to reduce fever, and it attracts all sorts of pollinators.

Spiderwort, or tradescantia, as we would call it in the UK, where it is only grown as an ornamental garden plant.

Golden alexanders, or Zizia aurea. I love this plant, which looks like yellow cow parsley. I'm going to try this in my meadow as well.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), which got its name because its leaves insist on pointing north and south, rather than just growing in a clump. Apparently, the new leaves face any old way, but orient themselves within two or three weeks. And according to Wikipedia, the early settlers on the Great Plains could find their way in the dark by feeling the leaves. (Although if I was an early settler, I wouldn't be out in the dark, thanks very much. Supposing you felt the tail of a mountain lion instead?)

Louise Hartwig enjoying the view and soaking up the idyllic atmosphere.

Miriam showed us how they process the seed. First, it's dried in the old greenhouse, which is baking hot.

Second, the seed is cleaned. Paul found this machine, invented by one Melvin R Dybvig, who unfortunately died after making only 50 of them. Paul bought it on the internet, and the buyer stipulated "collection only". so he had to drive down to Georgia to pick it up. That's right, Georgia USA. And Paul lives in Ontario, Canada.

A variety of sieves are used to clean the seed, all made by Paul. Farmers, like beekeepers, never buy anything if they can make it themselves.

However, this mincer, or meat grinder, was added to the cleaning kit, because it's good for sorting seeds that have very tough husks or shells. Behind it, a small rock with a handle in the top is also used ...

... and even a cement mixer is employed. As Miriam pointed out, if you send out your seeds full of chaff or other debris, you're ripping off the customer.
I love the way Miriam and Paul package their seeds, with really clear, full instructions on how to grow them. None of this "sow direct from March to May" nonsense. I also bought a copy of Miriam's book, Taming Wildflowers, which takes the same approach; it's both practical and passionate.
We rounded off our visit with the most spectacular lunch, cooked by Paul, which included devilled eggs, ham, cheese, two kinds of potato salad, and a wonderful carrot salad with a curry-flavoured dressing. I had so many helpings I lost count. If Paul ever feels like doing a book, I think it should be a cookbook.
However, perhaps the biggest thanks ought to go to Helen Battersby, who not only helped organise the fling, AND an extra day at Niagara, but also drove us all the way from Toronto to the farm and back, a round trip of four hours.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

How the garden looked on village open day

There's nothing like being stuck in an airport to make you get on with some blogging. I've been meaning to post these for days, but I've been whizzing around Toronto with a bunch of Canadian and American garden bloggers, having a wonderful time.
Now, however, I am stuck at Toronto Pearson, where the rain is lashing down and my British Airways flight has been delayed by the storm. Never mind...

I should first say a big thank-you to Pianolearner, who took most of these pictures. In my experience,  one never gets around to taking pictures on open day, you're too busy doing other things. Pianolearner (aka known as the husband of Louise Curley, author of The Cut Flower Patch) has commented regularly over the years both on my blog and my daughter's blog, so it was great to meet him and Louise at last. I loved Louise's book, and would recommend it to anyone thinking of starting a cutting garden.

The picture above shows the alliums in flower, and the picture below (which is mine) shows the verbascums. The idea is that the purple shade at the centre of the verbascums picks up the colour of the alliums, but I didn't manage to get a proper picture of the two next door to each other.

This verbascum variety is 'Clementine', and it seems very reliable so far. If you cut down the flower spikes when they start to fade, you get a new flush - last year I had three lots of flowers.

The view looking up the garden. Immediately behind the house, the garden is much more formal and (hopefully) manicured. In the foreground is the "not-a-hedge", which is composed of fastigiate yew, white broom and phlomis, with assorted grasses and irises. I wanted some kind of demarcation here, but not a solid wall or hedge or fence.

This border includes Euphorbia characias subs wulfenii, which has gone bonkers this year. It looks terrific with the Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', but the lime-green flower heads grew so big, they took a bit of a hammering in the wind and rain. The white is yet more white broom - Cytisus praecox albus. 

The pond is beginning to look really established now. I've tweaked the planting a bit to include more big leaves, such as Rheum palmatum tanguticum and lots of hostas. The candelabra primroses were looking good just before I left, but unfortunately, the pictures are still on my phone.

This is the view looking down the garden to the pond. Earlier this spring, I planted two Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star' either side of the urn. Their blossom has faded and they are now in leaf, but the cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is doing a great job of providing a flowery substitute.

I love succulents, and like to arrange them in shallow terracotta dishes. This is stonecrop, which most people regard as a bit of a pest in the garden, but it's fine in a pot, and looks great with sempervivum, as here, or with echeveria.

The colours of the stone wall suggested this colour scheme to me: the lichens turn the stone orange, white and black. Here the white flowers are Libertia grandiflora, the dark leaves are Sambucus nigra 'Black Tower' and the grasses are Stipa (or Nasella) tenuissima and Anemanthele lessoniana (formerly known as Stipa arundinacea).

I mentioned echeveria, and here is some, growing with Sedum reflexum 'Blue Carpet'. I don't know which variety this is, but I do have lots of different ones, and no, they don't all look alike!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Garden open today (with a bit of help from my friends)

It's been a busy week. Monday was press day at Chelsea, Tuesday morning I had to file for The Independent, so that left Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to get ready for the Bibury Open Gardens day today.

All went swimmingly until I tripped over the kitchen step while running into the house to answer the phone. I was taking off my gardening gloves as I ran, and I fell on my left hand, which was clutching my gloves. At first I thought I'd bruised a rib, but when I asked the local pharmacist for advice about painkillers,  she said it sounded like an intercostal strain, or even a torn muscle.
Great! And I'd just started getting a cold. Sneezing or coughing was going to be a whole heap of fun.
The Open Gardens event raises money for the village hall, so to be asked to take part is not only a huge compliment but also a practical way of helping to sustain community life. I was determined to go ahead with the garden opening, but the way I was feeling (and I was feeling very sorry for myself), how was that going to happen?
Luckily, my new next-door neighbours came to the rescue. Neil is a professional gardener, who for the past few years has worked with Stephen Crisp, head gardener at Winfield House, the residence of the US Ambassador to London.
Neil's partner Anthony is also a keen and knowledgeable gardener, while Stephen himself was coming to stay with them for the weekend. Between them, they managed to turn the mess that is my garden into something approaching respectability.

Anthony mowed the lawn...

Neil cleaned and weeded the terrace ...

And in between bites of chocolate cake, Stephen helped Neil clean up and rearrange all my pots and furniture into a far more pleasing arrangement.

My daughter helped too, fishing the gunk out of the pond. However, gardening is not really her thing, so she cleaned the house instead. There's nothing to beat a tidy, sparkling kitchen.

This picture of Rufus pretty much sums up how I feel right now, so I'll wait until tomorrow before posting photographs of the garden.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Chelsea Flower Show 2015

It's a good Chelsea this year. There is a wider variety of gardens than last year, there are some new(er) faces, and while some of the big designer names are taking a year out (Andy Sturgeon, for example, plus Cleve West and Tom Stuart-Smith), others have returned to the show - notably Dan Pearson, with his Chatsworth garden, inspired by the trout stream at the famous Derbyshire estate.

The garden (above) is an example of what Pearson does best - a deceptively simple design that looks as if a piece of the English countryside has been uprooted and transported to the centre of London. The lush waterside planting includes ferns, rheums and candelabra primulas.
Three of the most striking gardens on Main Avenue (where most of the big show gardens are housed) are inspired by very un-English landscapes, however. The Hidden Beauty of Kranji recreates the tropical atmosphere of a suburb of Singapore, the Sentebale garden is inspired by the southern African country of Lesotho, and The Beauty of Islam, designed by Kamelia Bin Zaal, is a modern interpretation of Arabic and Islamic culture.

The Singaporean garden (above) is an ambitious design with two waterfalls which I bet gave contractor Mark Gregory a few sleepless nights. From a distance they look like sheets of glass amid a sea of orchids.

The Sentebale garden (above) is designed to promote the charity set up by Prince Harry to help children living with the HIV virus. It's designed by Matt Keightley, who did a wonderful garden for the charity Help For Heroes at Chelsea last year. It looks very exotic, but with a few exceptions, most of the plants are fairly easy to come by; the bright orange in the foreground, for example, is the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Apricot Twist'.

I found the Beauty of Islam garden one of the most interesting show gardens. We owe such a huge debt to the paradise gardens of Islamic culture, whose basic layout is still echoed in millions of gardens throughout the world, including here in the UK.
The word "paradise" comes from the Old Persian word meaning a walled garden, and a traditional paradise garden has not only religious significance but also practical advantages. There are often four sections, divided by four rills or canals which represent the four rivers of paradise - named in the Bible as Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The rills also serve to irrigate every corner of the garden, which is traditionally planted with fruit and flowers. Even the most basic Islamic garden has at least a rectangular pool.
Kamelia Bin Zaal's garden does not have the four quadrants, but it has water and pomegranate trees and that sense of an oasis that you get in any walled garden. Instead of date palms, she has used the powdery grey-blue Bismarckia nobilis, or Bismarck palm. It's a native of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, and can grow up to 60 feet.

Chelsea on press day may be a seething mass of expert horticulturalists, but my understanding of the garden was enhanced by a young Muslim student who was working as a steward at the show.
We got into conversation while i was looking at the garden, and he told me that the flame-like sculpture below the palm on the left is a stylised representation of the word "Allah", and that the calligraphy inscribed on the walls of the garden are verses from the Quran which refer to paradise.
Until recent years, Islam was regarded as one of the most tolerant of the world's religions. I know many Muslims are horrified by the atrocities committed by organisations such as Islamic State and Boko Haram, and saddened that their faith has become associated with violence and death.
I can completely understand that they would want to reinstate the image of Islam as a religion of peace and serenity, and to present it as a garden is a beautiful idea.
To English eyes, the expanses of white marble can seem overpowering, especially in full sunlight. But as my Muslim student friend explained, you wouldn't spend time in this garden during the day if you were living in the Middle East - it would be far too hot. Instead, you would use it in the evening, when the white marble would gleam in the cool dusk.
Now, I could (and often do) go on at length about Islamic gardens, but I can hear all you non-Brits out there starting to fidget and say: "Come on, Victoria, we want to see some traditional British garden style!"

So here we go: this is Chris Beardshaw's Healthy Cities Garden for Morgan Stanley. The vibrant colours are provided by Geum 'Prinses Juliana' and Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna', backed up by 'Masterpiece' lupins. After the show is over, this garden will be recreated at an inner-city site in the east London district of Poplar.

More traditional English romanticism from Jo Thompson, with her garden retreat design for show sponsors M&G. It features a natural swimming pond, and an oak building inspired by writers such as Vita Sackville-West, Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl, who famously hid themselves away - whether it be in a tower or a shack - in order to work. The planting is a mouth-watering melange of pink, lavender and blue, and features roses and peonies.
It may be the middle of May, but that doesn't mean it is reliably sunny here in the UK. Press day at Chelsea yesterday started off with steady rain, and when the sun finally made an appearance, it was accompanied by a stiff breeze that brought the plane tree pollen down on us hapless hacks. I didn't stop coughing and sneezing until I got home - and I don't normally suffer from hay fever.
It was interesting to see that the gardens that used a lot of wood, or a lot of orange, seemed to glow even beneath the black skies.

The Homebase garden (above), designed by Adam Frost, was a good example of this, as was Matthew Wilson's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada (below) which is designed to demonstrate efficient ways of using and saving water. (That's Matthew on the left.)

It isn't just the garden designers who excel at Chelsea. The nursery people put on a fantastic show in the floral marquee, as you can see from this detail from the Hillier exhibit (below). I don't want to give you the impression that I only write about people who give me glasses of champagne, so let's put it this way. The massed ranks of champagne bottles and glasses at the Hillier stand ensured that the cream of the British gardening press took an intense interest in their plants. Thanks, guys - and here's to your 70th consecutive gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.

This stand by Redwood Stone also caught my eye - I wouldn't mind a few of those urns on my terrace.
For gardening journalists and serious gardeners, Chelsea is a must-see. It's difficult to keep up with what's going on in British horticulture AND pay attention to your own garden, so the Chelsea Flower Show provides a one-stop source of gossip, news and ideas, not to mention a chance to catch up with friends and commissioning editors.

And it is jolly good fun too.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2015

On Thursday, I headed up to Worcestershire for the RHS Malvern Spring Festival - or, as everyone usually calls it, "Malvern", or "the Malvern spring show".
It's only about an hour by car from where I live, but I was a bit pushed for time, so I didn't look at the show gardens. I spent most of my visit in the marquee, or looking at the plant stands, but Patient Gardener has posted about them, so have a look at her pictures.
I've always liked the Malvern spring show, but I agree with Patient Gardener that it gets better every year. The standard of displays in the floral marquee was very high, with mouthwatering selections of plants on sale. Because it's held in early May, it's a fantastic place to buy woodland plants or plants for shade, such as hostas, or tiarellas, or epimediums.
You are guaranteed to see varieties that you won't see in the garden centres, such as Roger Proud's gems, from East of Eden nursery in Carlisle, or The Plant Lovers nursery's huge selection of succulents. There's still another day of the show to run, so if you live locally, get along there and have a look.

One of the great things about shows like Malvern and Chelsea is that you can see tulips in flower. The catalogues are great, but the photographs tend to vary, as do the descriptions. Pink, for example, covers a multitude of shades. This is the Avon bulbs stand.

 It's not all just plants at Malvern - there are lots of stands selling garden equipment, or furniture, or ornaments of one kind or another. You can buy clothes, or jewellery, and there is a whole section devoted to food. I spotted this blacksmith at work as I headed to the stand selling Gloucestershire Old Spot pork sausages.

I love the view of Malvern itself from the show ground - rows of houses perched along the hillsides that mark the end of the Vale of Evesham and point the way to the Welsh mountains further west.

The weather at Malvern is often variable - Thursday was a mixture of sudden, heavy downpours and spells of bright sunshine. Another reason to stick to the marquee - I felt I could almost warm my hands at this fiery display of bougainvillea.

 Mickfield hostas have a habit of giving their hosts rather naughty names. Last year, Patient Gardener talked me into buying one called 'Climax': this year, I bought two 'Seducers'.

One of the nicest things about visiting shows is saying hello to Sean and Jooles of Heucheraholics. Here's Sean in his special Malvern hat (I did say it rained a lot, didn't I?) I bought some of their Tiarella 'Appalachian Trails' to go around my pond.
I'd seen Sean at the Powderham Castle garden festival the previous weekend, where the weather was even wetter and colder. Sean's smile was just the same, though.
Talking of smiles, if I had one tiny niggling complaint to make, it would be that some nursery stands seem to regard the plant-buying public as a bit of a nuisance.
I know shows are hard work, but surely the whole point of running a nursery is to sell your plants? It would be nice to get a smile, if you show an interest in buying.
It would be even nicer to be able to pay by card or cheque. So many stands are "cash only", which makes life easier for them, but a bit of a pain for those of us who don't like to carry around large amounts of cash. Not only that, but the ATMs at Malvern charge you £2.50 to get cash out.
When I look at what I bought at Malvern (two hostas, a Canna musifolia, some - well, quite a lot of -  echeverias, some geums and my tiarellas, they all came from stands where I had a friendly chat, and was offered the services of a card machine. Funny, that.
Am I being unfair? What do you think?

Monday, 27 April 2015

The happy hum of bees in blossom

We’ve had wonderful blossom this year, possibly because March and April were so mild. There was no frost to kill the buds (although the wood pigeons tried to make up for that by eating them).

I have two ornamental cherries in the front part of my garden. There is a pink one, which comes into flower first, and this one (above), which is a creamy white. One of my neighbours thinks it might be Tai-haku, or the Great White Cherry, but I'm not sure. What is certain, however, is that it looks absolutely fantastic this year. 

These pictures were taken about 7pm, in evening sunshine which makes the tree look slightly pinker than it actually is. What I can't show you is the sound of bees feeding on the blossom. It's a sort of Happy Hum.
I've often wondered if bees like music, or at least respond to the different frequencies of musical notes. I do hope so. I now have my own hive, but I know virtually nothing about looking after bees. If all else fails, I thought I might try playing the piano to them.
My first colony of bees arrived last month, thanks to garden designer Philippa (Pip) O’Brien. I’d already started a formal training course with Cirencester & District Beekeepers, but that involves keeping bees for the first two years at the Cirencester apiary, not in my garden, and we hadn’t got to the hands-on bit yet.
When I met Pip at my book launch in London, she asked me if I would like one of her colonies. She’s been appointed chair of the Society of Garden Designers, and she’s downsizing her apiary, which is on her allotment in West London, from seven colonies to four. I took a deep breath, and said yes.

The colony arrived on a cold March morning. Pip had got up at 6am in order to drive from London before the bees were active, and thanks to the cold weather, it took a few days for them to start getting out and about. Rufus was a bit uncertain about the whole idea.
Pip and I have what are called National hives, which are basically a series of boxes and trays. They are not as picturesque as the old-fashioned beehives, but they are much more practical.
As you can see in the picture above, they have flat roofs, and the beauty of these is that you can put them down on the ground and then stack the various pieces of the hive on top as you go through your inspection.
If you are working in an apiary, this is ideal, but I found that in the garden, the flat roof was a bit of a drawback. I would say to people: "Mind the bees," and they wouldn't really appreciate that what they thought was a tatty old box was actually a beehive. Not until they'd tripped over it and nearly got stung. 
Other style-conscious friends would look disappointed when I pointed out the hive, and i could tell that they expected to see a pristine white beehive with the traditional splayed tiers. 
So in the interests of safety, I invested in what is called a gable roof (below) and I have to admit I think it looks very attractive.

Bee-keeping, to me, seems an incredibly complicated world. There are so many decisions to make. Do you want this hive, or that hive? A deep roof or a shallow roof? Do you want plastic or wood? Do you want a round veil on your beekeeping suit or one that makes you look like a fencer? Do you want a coloured suit or a conventional white one? A large smoker or a small one? There is no right answer to any of these questions, just lots of different opinions.
This comes as a bit of a shock if you have the romantic idea that beekeeping is all about getting in touch with a simpler sort of life, and doing something that human beings have been doing for millennia, long before the days of self-help books and YouTube videos.
Oh, and did I mention the expense? By the time you have bought a hive, a bee suit and all the other bits and pieces (a smoker, for example), you won’t have much change left from £500.
And that’s before you put the hive together. You CAN buy your hive ready-assembled, complete with ready-assembled frames (the bits that hold the comb), but hardly anyone I know does that. They all buy flat-pack components and put them together themselves, or even make the various bits of the hive from scratch. Not for the first time in my life, I wish I knew less about woodwind and more about woodwork.
I felt the same when I had my children, and when I got my dog. I know it’s irrational, but however much I told myself that people all over the world had children, and kept pets, in far less comfortable circumstances than me, I still agonised about whether I would be capable of looking after them properly.
I’d probably have given up after the first class if it wasn’t for the fact that I find bees themselves so fascinating (and I’ve never managed to work out why that is).
Cirencester Beekeepers runs a programme of films and lectures as well as beekeeping classes and at these meetings, I often cast surreptitious glances at the more senior beekeepers in an attempt to discover the secret of their success. They all seem fairly normal, though there does seem to be a high proportion of people who are competent at making things.
However, there is a certain quiet confidence about experienced beekeepers. They tend not to rush around making a lot of noise, or indulge in heated debates, or spend a lot of time worrying about things they can’t do anything about. Perhaps that is the secret: stop panicking and just get on with it.