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.

Friday, 17 October 2014

And suddenly, there was a pond in my garden

I haven't blogged for ages because I've been busy writing a book. More on that another time, because I don't want to hear the word "book" again for a while.
Anyway, the day before my deadline, the guys who were going to build my pond turned up. (Isn't that always the way?) Suddenly, there was a digger, a skip, a tip-up truck, four men and a large hole in my garden. It was so exciting!
I'd always intended to have a pond in the garden, but finding someone to build proved unexpectedly difficult. A couple of pond specialists who lived to the west of me turned me down, because my garden was more than half an hour's drive away.
In the end, I found Pete Sims and his team on the internet. They were based in Reading, but work all over the Home Counties, so although they were an hour away, this didn't seem a problem. (I've often found this - if people are used to going into London or the South-east to work, the idea of commuting doesn't bother them so much.)
I liked the look of Pete's work - he seemed to be able to do a range of designs - and I asked him if he'd come and give me a quote. He came over and we spent a happy afternoon talking about ponds, plants and gardens. He seemed like someone who would not only do the job, but do it with enthusiasm.
Pete didn't draw me a plan. We went into the garden and I showed him where I wanted the pond, and waved my arms around and said: "I want something vaguely like that." I wanted a naturalistic pond, that would look good with the local stone. I wanted a jetty or a bridge of some sort where I could sit or kneel and look at what was going on down in the water. And I wanted a waterfall or moving water of some kind, mainly to deter mosquitoes from breeding.
Pete paced out the area and suggested how my ideas might take shape, and when his team arrived to start the build, he drew the outline on to the grass with blue paint. Then they built the pond. It was as simple as that.
Ideally, he would have used Cotswold stone, but the local stone is quite soft and we didn't think it would stand up to life in a pond. Instead, Pete used Purbeck stone, from Dorset, which is harder (and full of fossils), but pretty much the same honey colour.
Here's how it started:

First, catch your digger. Here it is arriving, closely followed by the skip. Unbelievably, the digger managed to squeeze through that wooden arch behind it.

The site for the pond. When I first moved to the house, there was a huge dead tree here, which had suckered around the trunk. A forest of brambles had grown up amongst the suckers. That was all dug out a while ago, and since then, this bit has been used for dumping or burning garden rubbish.
Here's another view of the site, below.

The scoops for the digger had straight edges, so that if by any chance you snagged a pipe or cable, it wouldn't be ripped out. There were three sizes of scoops, so it was possible to do quite delicate work.

The digging begins. Note the blue paint on the right.

And the digging goes on ...


And on... You can see how stony the soil is here

In the meantime, I knew I could rely on Rufus to keep an eye on everything.

By Day 2, the outline of the pond was more or less complete. We had lovely weather for the build, typical of September, with misty mornings turning to warm sunshine as the day wore on.

Rufus insisted on briefing his co-workers every morning. (I made them a cup of tea.)

And he also helped with the dig.

While Luigi was delighted to discover what he thought was a giant cat litter tray.

When the digging was completed, the pond was rendered in concrete, which helps stabilise the shape, and the shelves for the marginal plants.

The bit at the top of the pond, by the digger, is going to be the waterfall. It will be operated by a pump, which will circulate the water.

Day 3, and the concrete is lined with sand, before the liner goes in. The frame for the jetty is installed, and you can clearly see the steps that will form the shallow waterfall. In the meantime, the stone has arrived from Dorset, and the guys lay it out around the pond so they can see what sizes and shapes they have.
The garden slopes all over the place here, and I'm ashamed to say that I was a bit worried about whether the jetty would be level. When the guys went home, I borrowed one of their big spirit levels, and laid it on the frame. It was dead straight.

Rufus decides it's time to take a well-earned rest. In my next post, I'll show you what happened in Week 2.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Home thoughts from abroad

So, here's the thing: every time I attend a garden bloggers' fling in the United States, there is a heatwave. Before I go, I tell friends I'm going to Seattle, or San Francisco, or (in this case) Portland, Oregon. They snigger and say things like: "Remember to take a raincoat, huhr, huhr." The north-west coast of America, like the north-west coast of the UK, is notoriously damp and chilly.
When I arrive at the destination, the sky is blue, the temperature is about 38C (100.4F) and everyone is sweltering. I will already know this of course, because I will have been tracking the weather on the BBC's site, which is usually pretty foolproof.
Even better, when I get home from the fling, the heatwave has migrated to the UK, and southern England is basking in temperatures more usually found on the Riviera.
The "Fling" was first flung in 2008, in Austin, Texas, where a group of garden bloggers decided that it would be fun to have a national event and invite people from all over the US - and the rest of the world. Most of the "flingers" - but not all - are professional garden writers, or master gardeners, or involved in the horticultural trade in some way.
Since then, there have been flings in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Asheville, NC and Buffalo, NY. Typically the programme last three or four days and includes visits to both private and public gardens, trips to nurseries and plenty of opportunities to make friends.
In the past four years, Brits like me have started to infiltrate, and we are always given a typically warm American welcome. This year marked the highest number of Brits ever, including me; my friend Michelle from Veg Plotting, down the road in Chippenham;  Charlotte Weychan from The Galloping Gardener and Mark and Gaz from Alternative Eden. Here we are, posing for a group photograph at the International Rose Test Garden in Portland.

It's always difficult to know where to begin writing about all the astonishing gardens we visit on a fling. This time, I thought I might start at the end, and work backwards, because one of the greatest pleasures of a fling is to potter round the garden when I come home and digest all the interesting things I've seen.
I also think that, while it is important to scrutinise your own garden as dispassionately as you can (it's amazingly easy to see what you want to see, rather than what is actually there), it's also important NOT to look at your garden for a while. Going away for a couple of weeks allows you to see things with a fresh eye when you return.
There are times when I find my garden frustrating because it seems as if everything is determined to remain less than two feet high. Most of the plants you can see in the pictures below have been planted by me in the 18 months since I moved in, so it's not surprising that they are still quite small - some of the shrubs and trees, for example, will not attain their full height for many years.
However, when I came back from America, I realised for the first time that things really were beginning to fill out a bit, and give a vague impression of how the finished result might look.

My garden uses what most people would recognise as cottage garden plants, but there are also some exotic interlopers. I had a sub-tropical garden when I lived in London (see Victoria's Backyard), and I love bright colours, and coloured foliage. The challenge for me, when I moved to the Cotswolds, was to find a way to make my favourite plants work in a more traditional setting.
The starting point for a colour scheme at Awkward Hill was the Cotswold stone of the walls, which is a golden grey. It becomes covered in moss and lichen, which together add splotches of black/brown (where the moss dries out in summer), a bright yellow/ochre, and white.

So I have lots of grey plants - santolina, lavender, catmint - alongside gold foliage (in this case, Libertia ixioides 'Goldfinger' to the right of the staddle stone), purple leaves (Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo' and Sambucus nigra 'Black Tower') and the subtle, multi-coloured spears of Phormium tenax 'Alison Blackman'.

Mario fits into this colour scheme very neatly.

I think I meant to take a picture of the heuchera on the left, which are 'Bronze Beauty' - a really showstopping variety with vast amber-coloured leaves. They look a bit weird bobbing up in the middle of pale-pink Geranium endressii, but everyone always stops to ask what they are. What can I say? You can take the girl out of the exotic garden, but you can't take the exotic garden out of the girl ...

I say I meant to take a picture: I got distracted by Luigi, who was posing prettily in front of the lavatera.

This is Nigella papillosa 'African Bride', which I bought as seedlings from Sarah Raven. It's not the most economical way to buy plants, but I don't have a greenhouse (yet), so it makes a kind of sense to me. Nothing went to waste, nor did I have any disasters.

Looking down the garden, you can just see the fastigiate yews I planted this spring to form a boundary between the formal part of the garden and the wilder part. I spent ages deliberating whether to plant a hedge or have a fence. In the end, I decided on what I call "not a hedge". The idea is that the yews will form a line of pillars, which are interplanted, for now, with white broom (Cytisus x praecox 'Albus'), Libertia grandiflora, yellow crocosmia (Crocosmia crocosmiiflora 'George Davison'), Leucanthemum x superbum 'Broadway Lights' and various grasses.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Wisley revisited

There are very few things I miss about living in London. One of them, however, is the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, in Surrey. I used to live about 30 minutes' drive from Wisley, and could nip down there whenever I fancied, either to wander round the gardens looking for inspiration, or to buy stuff at the plant centre or the bookshop, both of which are superb.
In the 20 years that I've been visiting, the gardens - and the facilities - have got better and better. There is much more emphasis today on landscape design - Tom Stuart Smith, Robert Myers, Piet Oudolf and Penelope Hobhouse are just a few of the names who have contributed - which means that although Wisley is still very much a show garden designed to cope with thousands of visitors,  it has much more of a sense of place and less of the feeling of being a public park full of plant "exhibits".
So when my friend Helen said she wanted to go garden visiting and did I fancy Wisley, I said yes, please. Helen is such a knowledgeable plantswoman that any garden visit with her is a pleasure.

We set off from Gloucestershire on a cold, rainy morning, but by the time we arrived in Surrey, two hours later, the sun was shining. We'd piled the back seat of the car with an assortment of coats (really warm coats and really really warm coats) but it turned out that we didn't need any of them. It was gorgeous. The figures of the Henry Moore sculpture King and Queen, which is on temporary show at Wisley until the end of September, seemed almost to be basking in the sunshine.

"Is there much to see in a garden like Wisley at this time of year?" a non-gardening friend asked me when I got back. Are you kidding? There are the crocuses, and the hellebores, and the snowdrops, and the bare stems of cornus in colours ranging from yellow to dark red.

Helen wanted to see the Alpine House, which was a delight. There is something very satisfying about all those pretty little plants in their pristine little pots. It's like dolls-house gardening. If you look closely, you can see that all the vents of the glasshouse are open, but it was still too hot to stay in there for long. We spent the whole day saying to each other: "It's so hot!" When we had lunch, in the newly revamped British Food Hall, we were able to sit outside. At a table in the shade!

This bank is in the rock garden, where there were huge drifts of species crocuses, and other spring-flowering plants such as Cyclamen coum.

This grassy area next to the Walled Garden was incredibly colourful and many people were stopping to take pictures. It was quite difficult trying to photograph it without getting someone's shadow in the shot. Helen liked it, but I wasn't sure. I think Dutch hybrid crocuses can provide a good pop of colour just at the time when your spirits need a bit of a lift, and in many garden centres, they are all that you can buy, but I love the subtle colours of the C. tommasinianus cultivars or the original C. vernus vernus from which the Dutch hybrids are descended.

I love grasses, and I think the grass border at Wisley looks wonderful even in winter, when the stems are bleached and dry. I would never have thought of growing crocuses with them (I will now!), but I thought this was a wonderfully dramatic contrast between the soft, almost furry texture of the grasses and the vivid colour and neat shapes of the crocus flowers.

Another interesting idea was to plant crocus beneath cornus, where the flowers contrast well with the bare stems. I'm not sure about this combination of mauve and red, though. White would be better here, I think, while the pinky-purple would look fantastic with yellow stems, such as Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'. But that's just my personal taste.

I love the way the trunk of this magnolia rises like a sculpture from a sea of crocus and snowdrops. The snowdrops are just starting to go over, but their foliage still looks good.
All in all, Wisley still gets top marks. I like the way the new food hall is organised, and the choice of food was good. (We had spinach and ricotta strudel with coleslaw and green salad.) It used to be a rather dreary place, with huge queues, and I can't even remember the last time I ate there before this week.
In recent years, the gardens have become a popular destination for mothers or nannies with young children, which is not always a good combination with keen gardeners. Indeed, I walked straight into a branch, much to Helen's amusement, while trying to pass a large group of pushchairs and meandering toddlers. We didn't even bother going to see the butterflies in the Glasshouse because the queue of small children and their accompanying adults was a mile long.
I think it's fantastic, however, that children - especially very little ones - can experience gardens as fun places to go.  I'm sure it stays with them into later life and I wouldn't grudge them a day out at Wisley for a moment. But I'm glad the RHS is doing all it can to smooth the path of visitors in search of loos, or food, or cups of tea and cake.