Sunday, 17 July 2016

Show time! The annual Bibury Flower Show

If you had been standing in my front garden at about 9am yesterday morning, you would have seen a small procession of villagers bearing jars of jam, or vases of flowers, or cakes of one sort or another. as they carefully made their way to the village hall.
For the previous week, those who bake, or preserve, or garden, could be seen in earnest discussion. Snatches of conversation went something like: "Well, I think I've got a couple of cucumbers, but my carrots are a disaster." Or, in the case of the more creative flower arrangers: "Well, I've got an idea, but I'm not sure if it will work."
The Bibury Flower Show, as you can see from the poster below, has been going since 1891. We don't have skittles or "cocoanut" bowling any more (although there was a brass band up at the cricket field yesterday for their fun day), but the levels of skill and artistry, not to mention horticultural and culinary expertise, never fail to amaze me.

2016 has been a challenging year for gardeners in the UK, with a long cool spring, and a cool rainy summer so far. It's been the sort of year that makes me glad I don't grow vegetables, yet the village hall was full of wonderful produce, including the prize-winning trug below, grown by my bee-keeping buddy Alan Franklin (who made the trug as well).

Half the fun of the show is going round seeing who won what. My friend Beverly won first prize for her marmalade, and her partner Andy won first prize for his aerial picture of the village

I didn't win anything for my cut flowers from the garden, because stupidly I'd stuck to a colour scheme, instead of chucking everything that was in flower into a bucket. The point of the class is variety, to see how many different flowers you have available. (Mine is the cream jug in the front row.) However, that's one of the great things about the flower show - you learn from it.

I did win first prize for my foliage-only arrangement (below) so I was very pleased with that.

It costs 20p to enter each class, and classes include photography, handicrafts and a children's section, so there really is a chance for everyone to get involved.
At the end of a week that has been full of horrific news, the show seemed to underline for me the importance of community, of creativity, of maintaining a way of life that is productive and positive.
My next-door neighbour Neil came up with a a great description of Bibury this morning as we were walking our dogs. He said: "It's the sort of place that we thought only existed in our imaginations, in some nostalgic vision of England. But it's real."

Thursday, 30 June 2016

My garden, three years on

I feel so at home in Bibury that it's strange to think I moved here less than four years ago. This Sunday, 3 July, I open my garden for the National Gardens Scheme, so it seemed like a good time to take stock.
Those of you who remember my old blog, Victoria's Backyard,  will know that I used to open my garden for the NGS when I lived in London, so I'm used to the last-minute panic, and the frantic baking of cakes and so on.
Here in the Cotswolds, I also open my garden at the end of May, in aid of the village hall. This means that most of the major gardening projects for the year have to be completed by then, so I always feel like I'm ahead of the game by mid-June. 
Still, journalists will be journalists, and there is nothing like a looming deadline to make me ...  go and read a book, or rearrange my bedroom. Anything, in fact, to avoid the job in hand. My excuse is that we've had heavy rain most of the week, so I couldn't get much gardening done.
I've been meaning for ages to put together a scrapbook of pictures of the garden, tracing its progress since November 2012, when I moved in. Needless to say, that hasn't happened either, but at least I can make a start by putting them on my blog. 
The trouble with photographing the garden is that the bits that look a real mess are not the bits you photograph very often, so it's sometimes difficult to match up Then and Now shots. I've tried to get them as close as possible, and I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I did.

THEN (above): October 2012, just before I moved in.
NOW (below): May this year. The white-flowered shrubs are broom, Cytisus x praecox 'Albus',  

Below, a detail of the border, showing Helianthemum 'Wisley Pink', santolina, Allium 'Purple Sensation' and Phormium 'Alison Blackman'

THEN (above): The back garden in October 2012, just before I moved in.
NOW (below): May this year

THEN (above): The pond site in August 2014. I don't have a 2012 picture of it, because it used to be home to a dead tree, which had suckered amid a thicket of brambles. I had the tree taken out and for a while, it was a useful place to have bonfires.
NOW (below): The waterfall as it looks today.

THEN (above): October 2012, just before I moved in.
NOW (below): May last year. I thought the climbing rose was dead when I moved in - it was a rather sickly-looking stump. Now it covers the south side of the house. I don't know what variety it is - maybe 'Compassion'?

THEN (above): October 2014. I used to mow paths through the long grass which had two benefits: first, you could walk around more easily, and second, you can use the mowed areas to get an idea of how things will look.
NOW (below): May this year. The border that now runs alongside the wall was planted in the autumn, with additional planting being added this spring.

THEN (above): August 2014. This little birdbath used to sit in the corner of what I call the cherry tree garden, because it is dominated by two big ornamental cherries. It was always a rather problematic bit of the garden because it was full of perennial weeds such as ground elder and hogweed.
NOW (below): May  this year. The iron bench has replaced the bird bath, and there is a new border along the far wall, which my neighbour Neil sprayed off for me earlier in the spring. I planted it up the week before I opened for the village hall.

The new border, below, is planted in sultry shades of purple and pink, with splashes of lime yellow from shrubs such as Choisya 'Aztec Gold' and Physocarpus 'Angel's Gold'. I'm waiting for a sunny day to photograph it properly. However, it's not the very newest border - that has been made on the opposite side of the garden, where Neil took out a mess of lilac and ivy with his chainsaw.
Neil often works with his friend Stephen Crisp, head gardener at Winfield House in London (home of the US Ambassador), and both Neil and his partner Anthony are good gardeners, with a great eye for design and proportion. It's wonderful having gardening neighbours who are happy to help.

THEN (above): spring 2014. Can you see the bonfire piled up on the site where the pond was eventually built?
NOW (below): May this year

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The perfect English village fete, in the perfect English garden

Bibury, like many other villages up and down the country, holds an annual summer fete. It's very much a local affair - volunteers run the tea tent, and the raffle stall, and face painting, and the games for the kids, and the Women's Institute sell cakes and so on.
Until recently, the village fete was held on the lawn at Bibury Court, a Jacobean mansion that is the local "big house", but a couple of years ago, that arrangement came to an end, much to the dismay of villagers.
This year, however, Mr and Mrs Robert Cooper, owners of another "big house", Ablington Manor, offered the use of their gardens as a setting, and yesterday, at 2pm, to the strains of a brass band, the fete got under way.
I'd visited Ablington Manor before, because I wrote about it in my book, Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, and in an article for The English Garden magazine last year. I was interested to see how the space would be used, because although there are large, reasonably level areas of lawn, there are also several gardens within a garden.
I loved the idea of serving tea in the walled garden, which gave a great sense of intimacy.

The decision to put the brass band in front of the "gazebo" (which Robert Cooper designed himself) was inspired; the band were fantastic and it was lovely to hear the music floating across the river Coln, which runs through the garden.

On the lawns there was plenty of room for children to run about, and for groups of friends and neighbours to stand and admire the garden, or swap the latest gossip. The games at Bibury Fete are always very low-tech - no arcade style games, just traditional things like quoits or races.
My friend Wendy Hazelwood was running the tea tent, and asked me to do flowers for all the tables (below). I was also doing Bakewell tart, both for the tea tent and for the WI stall, so I had a pretty busy day, but a very enjoyable one.

The flowers for the tea tables, waiting to be loaded into the car.

The WI cake stall - they'd sold out by 3.30pm! - and below, various views of the gardens


I know this sounds terribly old-fashioned, but I do think the owners of historic houses have a duty to the local community which has grown up around them. These properties are such a focal point that if the owner does not engage with his or her neighbours, it leaves a sort of vacuum at the heart of the village.
I really applaud Mr and Mrs Cooper for opening their garden to the fete - particularly in view of the fact that the garden is open in aid of the British Legion next Sunday. I'm also opening my garden next Sunday, for the National Gardens Scheme, and much as I love my neighbours, I would not want half the village traipsing around a week before the big day.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

First glimpse of RHS Bridgewater

The new RHS garden, to be created on a derelict estate in Salford, is one of the most exciting garden projects I can remember in my lifetime. I went up there last week on the first press tour, and wrote this piece for the i newspaper.
The RHS announced the go-ahead in October, but this was the first chance for outsiders to see what was involved. The charity is hoping to open the garden in 2019.
In horticultural terms the challenge is huge. The walled kitchen gardens, all 11 acres of them, are choked with the sort of thuggish weeds that give gardeners nightmares: brambles, horsetail and so on. In the wooded areas, there are volunteer saplings all over the place, and the avenue of limes that would have led from the gates to the estate to the house (now gone) is unrecognisable. Where horse-drawn carriages would once have passed, there is now a tall crop of Himalayan balsam. It's going to be a huge job, but a fascinating one.
I've posted some pictures below that the i didn't use. They don't really give you an idea of the scale of the site, which is 156 acres in total, but they give you some idea of the atmosphere. The day we visited, the weather was absolutely foul, so I was very grateful to the ladies from Salford City Council (who are partners in the project with the RHS) for bringing along umbrellas.

I would say roughly half the site is woodland, some of which will be cleared to provide what were originally intended to be vistas, or - in the case of the lake below - to restore what was an island and which has now silted up and become overgrown.

Tim Upson, RHS director of horticulture (left), with designer Tom Stuart-Smith (holding drawing)

 The gates to the estate are still there, but the carriage drive is now choked with weeds and trees.

 The meadow area is roughly 30 acres, and will probably remain as a meadow, with wildflower planting and perhaps picnic areas. The Bridgewater Canal, built in the 18th century by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere, runs behind the line of trees you can see running along the middle of the picture.

Another  carriage drive, looking a bit like a river bed.

There are rough paths around the site, such as this one, which leads past the concrete civil defence bunker.

The remains of an octagonal fountain, which was on one of the terraces below the house. The house is now completely gone, and the view from the terraces across the countryside is obscured by trees.

Monday, 18 April 2016

In praise of ... Japanese cherries

For beekeepers, the joy of ornamental cherry blossom lies not just in its appearance, welcome though that is after months of winter monochrome. It’s also the sound of contented bees feeding on the nectar, which on a warm spring afternoon fills the garden with a happy hum.
Ornamental cherries, like all fruit trees and their cultivated varieties, put on their spectacular early show specifically for bees and other pollinators, getting in quick before there is too much competition from other sources such as herbaceous plants and trees.
If you are one of those people who think that Japanese cherries are just a little bit suburban, then you’d be right. Their popularity in Britain was fuelled by the growth of the new suburbs in the 1920s and 1930s, which mushroomed out from cities and towns across land that had previously been used for grazing and hay.
In 1900, there were around a million working horses in the UK, but by 1914, thanks to the advent of the motor car, this number had dropped to less than 25,000. (So many horses were requisitioned for the Great War that by 1918, some British breeds were in danger of extinction.) Conversely, there was a huge demand for housing. The population in England nearly doubled between 1851 and 1901, and the number of houses in the UK as a whole rose from eight million at the end of the First World War to 12 million by 1939.
Despite the growth of new housing on the former hay meadows in the suburbs, there was still less pressure on space than in the city, so the new homes had front and back gardens, and a more organised approach to street planting. The new owners didn’t want huge trees like London planes, which would have been out of scale and looked too urban. They wanted something that was smaller, and prettier, and more suited to their idea of a quasi-rustic lifestyle. Step forward the ornamental Japanese cherry, and the man who did so much to popularise them, Captain “Cherry” Collingwood Ingram.
When it comes to heroes, we British seem to reserve a special place in our hearts for those who are multi-talented. W G Grace, for example, retained his amateur status despite being one of England’s greatest cricketers because his day job was being a GP. Leonard Cheshire, war hero and founder of the care homes charity named after him, was a member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and a formidable amateur player. More recently we have Brian Cox, who followed pop fame with a professorship in particle physics.
Cherry Ingram may not be such a familiar name, but even the Japanese acknowledged that he knew more about their cherries than they did, especially after he reintroduced Prunus serrulata ‘Tai Haku’, or the Great White Cherry, to Japan in the late 1920s, where it was thought to be extinct.
Horticulture was not Ingram’s first passion. He spent the first 40 years of his life as a keen ornithologist, and he was a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union for a record 81 years. The journals he wrote while he was a compass officer with the Royal Flying Corps, published as Wings over the Western Front, detail many of the birds he saw on his reconnaissance flights across the French countryside. (He reprised his military career during the Second World War, when he took command of his local Home Guard in 1940.)
He also collected Japanese art, in particular netsuke, tiny carved figures in ivory or wood. He had such a good collection, he donated it to the British Museum, and it was his interest in Japanese culture, and his birdwatching trips to Japan, that fuelled his enthusiasm for Japanese cherry trees.
Many of the ornamental cultivars we grow today are Prunus serrulata, or sakura, as it is called in Japan. ‘Tai Haku’ is still a popular choice, as is ‘Kanzan’, ‘Shirofugen’, ‘Ukon’ and the columnar ‘Amonogawa’. However, there are ornamental cherries to suit all purposes and all gardens, such as the dwarf Fuji cherry, such as ‘Kojo-no-mai’, which will grow quite happily in a pot. 
They are not particularly fussy as to soil, but they do like to be in full sun, and they don’t like drying out. So if you are planting a young tree, make sure that it is watered well throughout its first season. It’s very easy to forget once those spectacular flowers have faded.
Britain has two native cherry trees - the bird cherry (Prunus padus) and the wild cherry (Prunus avium). It is the wild cherry, or gean, that A E Housman was describing in his poem: 
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now.
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride,

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

In praise of ... amelanchier

A peacock competes for attention with an amelanchier in full bloom at Cotswold Wildlife Park near Burford

Spring is on the tip of Nature’s tongue. At this time of year, it may sometimes as if she is having a senior moment and can’t quite remember the name of the new season, but by the end of the March, the first of the flowering trees are coming into bloom.
One of the most reliable of these, in my experience, is amelanchier, and I’ve never understood why this tree is not more popular. It has delicate white flowers and copper leaves in spring, berries in summer, and good autumn foliage colour.
It has a natural tendency to be multi-stemmed, which means that it can be grown either like a shrub or as a small tree. It will tolerate pruning, and will achieve a maximum height of only 30ft after 20 years, so it’s a great choice for a small garden.
Amelanchier, like Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), forsythia, ornamental quince (Chaenomeles ssp) and flowering cherries, are understorey trees, and this is the key to their flowering behaviour. Crucially, they come into flower before they come into leaf – a process known as “hysteranthous” – and the reason for this is pollination.
Understorey species get shaded out once the trees above them start developing leaves, so they need to produce their flowers fast, while sunlight is still available to them, and while pollinators are not distracted by other blossom sources. If they produced flowers and leaves at the same time, they would be straining already limited resources.
They also need the pollination process itself to be speedy, and a frothy display of blossom can be seen much better over longer distances if it is not partially obscured by leaves. In addition, it will attract social pollinators such as bees and wasps, who will quickly communicate the source of this largesse to their colonies.
Finally, these social pollinators - especially in the case of honeybees - will work systematically over the tree until they have exhausted its supply of nectar and pollen.
Amelanchier are mainly native to North America although there are two Asian species and one that occurs in Europe. The two sorts of amelanchier you are most likely to encounter in the UK are A. canadensis, which as its name suggests, is from eastern Canada, and A. lamarckii. A. lamarckii is a hybrid, and strictly speaking should be called A. x lamarckii, but unlike many hybrids, it comes true from seed.
Amelanchiers must hold the record for the number of common names and nicknames they possess. In America, they are known as serviceberry, saskatoon, shadbush, sugar plum, or (my personal favourite) chuckley pear, while in the UK they are more commonly known as June berry, or snowy mespilus, because of their starry white flowers. (Mespilus germanica is the botanical name for medlar.)
As you would expect of trees that grow in woodland, amelanchiers prefer soil that is on the acid side of the spectrum, and most textbooks will tell you that they dislike lime. The textbooks will also tell you to grow them in full sun while at the same time informing you that these trees like plenty of moisture.
So how do you grow them here in the Cotswolds? The best way to get around these seemingly contradictory instructions is to grow them on the edge of woodland, or where mature trees such as beech provide plenty of leaf litter. While it’s true that amelanchiers like sunshine, they don’t flourish in a hot, dry, exposed position. A typical woodland floor, rich in leaf mould and other organic detritus, not only helps to keep the soil neutral but also provides a nice damp root run. 
Could I leave you with one last thought? This comes from Barchams, the tree nursery, who have just announced that they now hold a Royal warrant from the Prince of Wales as well as HM the Queen, so they obviously know their stuff.
They have joined the BBKA in promoting a Bees Need Trees campaign, and as they point out: “It is believed that five or six trees provide more forage for bees than an acre of wildflower meadow. It's so much easier to plant a tree than to try and grow an abundance of flowers.” I couldn’t agree more.

Sunday, 28 February 2016


Drifts of crocuses in flower amid clumps of hellebores at RHS Wisley

It seems odd to think that once upon a time, saffron was widely grown as a crop in Britain. Place names such as Saffron Walden and even Croydon (a corruption of Croh Denu, the Old English for “crocus valley”) bear testament to the fact that in the Middle Ages, England was the world’s biggest saffron producer.
Today we think of saffron as an exotic - and expensive - spice. Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gold, and although much of the saffron we buy in the supermarket is labelled “Spanish saffron”, it is probably grown in Iran, which now produces just over 90 per cent of the world’s crop.
Saffron has to be harvested by hand, and such a labour-intensive process became uneconomic in the UK centuries ago. Each flower has three thread-like stigma, and for every 1lb (450g) of dry saffron you need 50,000–75,000 flowers.
We may not produce saffron commercially any more, but you only have to look at parks and gardens at this time of year to see that many different species of crocus thrive in southern England. 
From a beekeeping point of view, crocuses are the perfect flowers. They are specifically designed to attract bees and moths, so they have nice open flowers that give easy access to pollen and nectar. They flower early in the year, but the flowers only open in good weather - when bees are more likely to be flying - which means the blooms don’t get trashed by wind and rain.
Saffron crocuses flower in autumn, but the earliest spring-flowering species is Crocus tommasinianus, a native of the Balkans, with delicate purple flowers. “Tommies” look far too fragile to be up and about in February, but they are as tough as the proverbial old boots. ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Whitewell Purple’ are two forms that are widely available.
The best thing about Tommies, however, is that they are relatively squirrel-resistant. I’d always wondered why my crocuses survived, despite having a garden full of squirrels, and I assumed it was because they were planted quite deeply, under a layer of turf. Apparently, Crocus tommasianus corms contain high levels of an alkaloid that squirrels don’t like, which makes me wonder whether their reputation for naturalising freely in the garden is less to do with any especial vigour and more to do with the fact that squirrels don’t dig them up.
Another of my favourites is ‘Firefly’, one of the Crocus sieberi cultivars. These are also early performers - fantastic if you want to provide flowers for bees venturing out on mild days - and they also have lilac flowers, but with the striking golden-orange throat that characterises C. sieberi. ‘Tricolor’ is another attractive variety.
I also have a soft spot for the Crocus chrysanthus cultivars, such as ‘Snow Bunting’, ‘Zwanenburg Bronze’, ‘Blue Pearl’ or ‘Zenith’, a newer introduction. Some of these have been around for decades but you tend to have to buy them as bulbs, rather than as spring bedding in the garden centres.

                                                           'Zenith' in the alpine house at RHS Wisley

If you go to the average garden centre, you would be forgiven for thinking that the only crocuses in existence are a handful of Dutch hybrids – ‘Pickwick’, ‘Jeanne d’Arc’, ‘Remembrance’ and so on. They are alleged to be tougher, with much bigger flowers, and they bloom about two or three weeks later. Most of them date back to the Twenties and Thirties, so in terms of reliability, they have a good record.
I agree they have bigger flowers, and they flower later, but I would argue that these are not particularly desirable attributes, especially if you are desperate to start cutting the grass in spring. In the most miserable month of the year you want something that flowers sooner rather than later and I prefer the graceful smaller blooms. 
Crocuses like full sun and hate soil that is permanently damp or water-logged. A sunny corner of a lawn is perfect, or beneath an ornamental tree such as a flowering cherry. By the time the cherry comes into leaf and starts shading out the crocuses, they will have gone over.
Finally, the plural. Croci or crocuses? I’m always astonished that anyone spends time wondering about this, but for those who do, both are correct, according to the dictionary. If you want to be really purist about it, use crocuses, because “croci” – like octopi or cacti – is a bit of a mongrel word. It uses the Latin masculine plural for what was originally a Greek word,  whereas “crocuses” is a good old English construction.