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.