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.

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.