Sunday, 24 May 2015

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

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

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

Anthony mowed the lawn...

Neil cleaned and weeded the terrace ...

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

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

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

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Chelsea Flower Show 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is jolly good fun too.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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