Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Making a Garden for Wildlife

I was wielding the hoe through a recently planted border (AKA weed seed magnet), cursing taproots and apologising to dormant tulip bulbs wrenched from their summer slumbers by my frenzied hoe-flailing, when a lady stopped by and asked if I might give a short talk to the local gardening club about the development of the gardens at Le Grys Farm. Uncertain as to whether she had heard me begging the bulbs' forgiveness, but fairly certain that her sudden appearance had caused me to yelp in surprise (I imagine the bulbs probably did likewise when they were dragged from the soil moments earlier, if indeed bulbs yelp), I agreed to speak and immediately set about wondering what on earth this lady thought I might have to say.

The Farmhouse Garden
I have blogged in the past about gardeners’ minds being fixed in the future* and as I watched the lady leave, I realised that I had been so busy planning the next area of garden that there had been no time to appreciate the more established borders. Thanks to that lady, I found the time to look at the garden and to reminisce on what was originally here.

The dining room in 2000
When we bought Le Grys Farm in 2000, the 16th century Farmhouse had been empty for 20 years. There was electricity in just one or two rooms and there were no bathrooms, which was marginally inconvenient as I was pregnant with twins and the nearest public loo was 2 miles away. There was a Wisteria, which I can only describe as pollarded to within an inch of its life. Obviously this did little to aid the bathroom issue, but it did fill me with hope that we might one day have a garden. The only other plant in the garden was a walnut tree which was too young to fruit. I left the walnut to continue its childhood, put up wires for the Wisteria and set it free (in as much as anything trained along a wire is ever free), then I planted Old English lavender across the front of the house, had the lawn seeded and a gravel drive put in. That's it. We didn't live here and everything had to be very easily maintained in our absence. 

The Farmhouse Garden 2012
Over a decade flew by before we were able to move to Norfolk. Clearly a garden comprising a walnut, a Wisteria and a lavender hedge is hardly going to satisfy a gardener's desire to grow things, so I set about creating the first of a number of gardens here. The walnut was finally getting its act together on the fruiting front, so I sited the garden paths around it. I propagated and purchased plants to add to those I brought with me: Geum rivale which had been dug from my aunt’s garden and had flourished in two of my gardens since; and Salvia uliginosa, which I bought at a plant fair and hung from the back of my baby daughter’s pushchair. That daughter is now 12 years old, and The Farmhouse Garden is three. 

The Farmhouse Garden 2012
When we purchased the farm, there was an agreement with the vendor that he would have use of the farmyard and some buildings until 2010. In actual fact, they were used by him for a couple more years. By then, an ecological survey had revealed that there was a low biodiversity presence in the farmyard. I decided that this had to change. Starting with my plant selections for The Farmhouse Garden, I would garden with wildlife in mind.

The Farmhouse Garden 2014
Apart from providing shelter and sustenance for wildlife, The Farmhouse Garden has to be easily maintained within four hours a week, for it is a space to be enjoyed by holiday makers. Quite rightly, guests at The Farmhouse want their family pet to have a holiday too, so dogs are welcome. The lawn becomes a space for ball games, bouncy castles and barbecues so I cannot afford to be too precious about its state, or that of the plants. Toddlers will toddle through borders; dogs have a knack of leaving the path, so plants must be resilient to the rigours of family life. They must also benefit wildlife, be beautiful for the guests to enjoy, and not cost the earth to replace.

The Farmhouse Garden 2015
Propagating and shopping for plants is always a pleasure. Making a garden is a privilege; sharing that garden with guests and wildlife is a joy. Three years after beginning the first of the gardens here, the days of wondering where the wildlife is are well and truly over. There are pollinators and birds aplenty. We share our gardens with bats, owls, newts and ducks; and thanks to extensive fencing, we see, but are rarely troubled by rabbits, hares and deer. We still have a long way to go in making our gardens here, but now that I have taken the time to look at The Farmhouse Garden, I am surprised to see that we have already come a long way. 


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Something for Everyone at RHS Chelsea 2015

If your passion for naturalistic planting remains undiminished, or you harbour an unfailing love of neat hedging blocks or rich purple palettes, Chelsea must seem like a horticultural second honeymoon. 

Dan Pearson's Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden is as natural as it gets in a flower show. Exquisitely executed, this garden turns the challenges of the triangular plot into a virtue, for whether standing beneath the stone stacks, or kneeling to appreciate the delicacy of the planting, this is a garden to be explored from all sides. 

We expect beautiful plants and inspiring plant combinations at Chelsea - particularly from Chris Beardshaw. His Healthy Cities Garden is a lesson in heavenly herbaceous planting with twists of citrus zing to lift the scheme.

Away from the wilder planting schemes, the hedging elements and the obligatory beautiful Chelsea flower borders, the exotic and mesmerising Hidden Beauty of Kranji Garden by John Tan and Raymond Toh gives us foliage combinations to die for. 

As always, the tiny Artisan Gardens offer a masterclass in fine detailing. A Trugmaker's Garden is truly astonishing in its detail. I am no trug expert (apart from a tendency to dangle one decoratively over my arm during the bean picking season), but there is no mistaking a great trugmaker's garden when you see one.

The Fresh Gardens seem to be gaining in popularity; they are certainly growing busier each year. Sarah Eberle's garden highlighting the work done to monitor plant pests and diseases indigenous to one part of the world which could threaten native plants from other countries, is thought-provoking and entertaining; it also reminds us that slinkies are not just for staircases.

For many visitors to the show, the plants are the stars, and each year new plants are introduced at Chelsea. Clematis TAE ('Toltae'), is one of three Clematis introduced by Thorncroft Nursery this year. It is striking for its very pointed tepals and pink/white colouring. Bred in Japan by Ren Tanaka, it is named after his late wife.

Antirrhinum ‘Pretty in Pink’ from Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants blooms all summer and is the first truly perennial Antirrhinum.

For something rather rarer, feast your eyes upon this gorgeous Trillium. It is one for my wish list in the oh-so-distant future. All we can do at the moment is hope that Kevock Garden Plants bring Trillium grandiflorum 'Raspberry Ripple' to Chelsea next year so that we can have another drool over it. 

If pink isn't your thing, here is a beautiful plant with one of those names requiring a mid-pronunciation tea break: Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum Kilimanjaro Sunrise ('Jww5'). Exhibited by Burncoose Nurseries, its white lacecap spring blooms are followed by masses of red berries and orange-red autumn foliage colour.

It is the Plant Of The Year no less. A shrub! And not just any shrub. A Viburnum! Did anyone see that coming? Chelsea, my love, you never fail to surprise. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Vita Sackville-West, a Bowl of Popcorn and a Radish

If  I could be a plant, I would be Fritillaria meleagris. Unfurling balletically from a deep sleep, stretching gracefully, then flowering sophisticatedly and elegantly. Instead I am a radish. I leap out of bed before everyone else and there is a strong chance of fieriness as I bumble around, ruddy faced, trying to get to grips with the day. Lately the days have involved chunks of time spent of turf-staring, for which I blame Fritillaria meleagris. It is all very well enjoying this plant in full flower, but missing the gentle unfurling would be a crime. 

Fritillaria meleagris is the ultimate maverick plant. For a start, it thrives where other bulbs won’t cope. If your soil is heavy and damp, rejoice and forget the grit. Just plant this fritillary deep (four times the depth of the bulb) and look forward to years of flowers. If your soil is sandy and dry, you had better enjoy this plant in someone else’s garden, because it might cope in your soil for a while, but you will need to replace the bulbs far too soon. 

Since it was first recorded as a wild flower in 1736 (it had already been recorded in gardens in 1578), Fritillaria meleagris has been the subject of debate. Is it native to England? If not, how did it get here? Did it arrive with the Romans, or is it a cheeky escapee from a Tudor garden? Mysterious Fritillaria meleagris certainly keep us guessing. Where mystery and controversy lead, bad publicity often follows; and Fritillaria meleagris is no stranger to negative press.

While the commonest common name these days is snake's head fritillary, these delightful little flowers are also known as leper lilies. There must have been plenty of bells with happy connotations clanging around in the Middle Ages, but this quiet beauty got its name because it resembled the warning bell carried by lepers. To add insult to injury, Vita Sackville-West didn't seem overly fond of Fritillaria meleagris:

And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries
(The Land)

Oh dear. Galling as it must be to have a human radish disagree with you, I see them as jewels in the field.

Vita Sackville-West would have seen fritillaries growing in the wild; I haven't, which is one of the reasons why I value this plant so dearly. Boggy pasture was drained and cultivated to increase food production during the Second World War and fritillary meadows disappeared. What was once a common wildflower can now be seen growing naturally in just a handful of locations in Southern and Central England. 

Obviously I can’t plant a natural fritillary meadow, but I can grow these lovely bee magnets in a damp corner of the orchard. Having tried and failed with fritillaries in a previous garden, I didn’t plant too many. Happily, these fritillaries have been with me for two years now and appear to be establishing well. I grew them from bulbs for financial reasons and this revealed another of these pretty little flowers' idiosyncrasies. They might be delicate and elegant, but they grow from bulbs which bear more than a passing resemblance to popcorn. 

Fritillary meadows can be found here: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves-wildlife/great-places-see/fritillarymeadows

I am linking this post with Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day hosted by May Dreams Gardens and I will now be heading over there to see what is blooming elsewhere on the planet. Here's the link: http://www.maydreamsgardens.com/2015/04/garden-bloggers-bloom-day-april-2015.html

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Gardening Sins and Penitent Pigeons

When I was five years old, I entered a name the doll competition at my school summer fair. I studied the list of potential names and rejected any I recognised in favour of one which my emerging reading skills were unable to decipher. It might not be the most scientific approach to competition winning (in my defence, the field of dolls' names guessing is notoriously under-researched), but it worked; and as I scrambled onstage to collect the doll with the name I couldn't read, I felt like the luckiest child alive.

Chaenomeles speciosa 'Nivalis' in the Barn Garden
Maureen the doll travelled with me through childhood; a daily reminder that I had once been lucky. I haven’t won many prizes since then, but I do count myself as lucky, particularly when it comes to gardening. Garden luck comes in many guises; be it the weather, a happy chance seedling, or getting away with gardening misdemeanours. My gardening life has to fit around whatever else is going on at home and at work. Gardening calendars and years of horticultural training count for very little if the diary is filled with appointments with humans rather than plants. Worrying about a recurring failure to garden in a timely fashion is not going to help. Gardening should be fun and relaxing, not stressful. So I eat crops when they ripen and I try not to worry about tasks which will wait until tomorrow (or a week on Wednesday).

Aubretia living up to its reputation as a bee magnet
Sometimes the delay can seem endless. Instead of being planted when the bulbs arrived in autumn, beautiful Iris reticulata 'Blue Note' endured a twelve week sojourn on my office floor before I finally found the time to pop the emaciated bulbs into the soil on January 17th. At the time I was uncertain whether this was a planting or a burial, but guess what? The lovely Iris forgave my gardening sin. From planting to flowering in nine weeks. How lucky is that? 

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note'
I often meet new gardeners who are frightened of putting a foot wrong with their plants. Fear seems to hold back their gardening potential and reduces their enjoyment of their plots. I have always believed that plants will survive if it is at all possible, irrespective of the level of care they receive from me. Of course they need to be planted correctly in a suitable soil and location, and their dietary needs should be met, but they can be remarkably forgiving when we garden a little less than perfectly.

Crocus tommasinianus forgave a very late planting
Had there been an award for the most neglected fruit in England last year, my strawberries would surely have won first prize. Mulch was a distant memory, as were food and water. I didn't have high hopes of a single berry, but they proved me wrong. With luck like this, the pigeons will be sauntering past my cabbages, cooing, "We're sorry we ate your crops last year. Please don't hoe and net on our account, we've discovered the No Cabbage Diet and we only eat weeds. Oh yum... delicious dandelions.” 

Actually, my good fortune in the strawberry patch left me feeling deflated. Had I tended those strawberries, I would have been delighted that the care I had lavished on them had resulted in a bountiful harvest. Since they cropped well irrespective of any effort on my part, the question of why we bother to garden raised its ugly head. I garden because I love gardening. I may rely too heavily on luck and I might not garden according to the timeframe I learnt in order to pass my exams, but I remain optimistic that the plants will forgive me and that one day I might achieve perfect timing with all my gardening tasks. As for the strawberries, even if they don't need it, they will be receiving abundant care this year. After all, my garden might manage perfectly well without me for a while, but I don’t believe in pushing my luck.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Great Garden Challenge - Anglesey Abbey

I like an easy life; the sun on my back, well-behaved weeds and a garden fitted with wall-to-wall perfect tilth. Instead I get iron-willed weeds and fifty shades of clay with a few bits of ironmongery thrown in for painful spade-jarring.

Digging clay isn't The Great Garden Challenge though; nor am I planning to scramble up and down mountains, camel it across The Sahara, or make some unspeakable effort on behalf of my abs. My challenge involves industrial quantities of tea, cake and gossip. For I have pledged to visit 50 gardens with 50 different people or groups of people in a year. Tough, isn’t it?

Sunshine and Viburnum
Training for this Herculean task has been demanding. Exhaustive research involving salivating over beautiful garden photos was taxing enough without the arduous trial runs I endured in order to hone the vital skills of packing supplies (money) and equipment (camera). 

Acer griseum
It hasn’t all been plain sailing: one friend was refused entry to a garden thereby rendering the visit invalid, and I missed a tour when my chickens were attacked by dogs just as I was about to leave the house. Then there is the ongoing issue of my garden-loathing offspring. When asked where she would like to go on holiday, my youngest child googled this: 

Is there any hope? 

On a positive note, The Great Garden Challenge is an opportunity to catch up with friends and meet other gardeners. A group of friends who live nearly 100 miles away from me came along for my first ever visit to Anglesey Abbey, where The Winter Garden is in full swing. 

Chimonanthus praecox 'Luteus'
The design of The Winter Garden makes inspecting little Iris, Crocus and Galanthus flowers or stroking the bark of Acer griseum so easy. The scent of the great swathes of Sarcococca growing by the path is stronger than ever thanks to the enclosed, sheltered nature of this area. It is as if the plants are coming to us, rather than us having to seek them out. So often we scatter our winter flowers around the garden, filling gaps hither and thither, but having them all cheek by jowl and sited by a path adds to the wow factor of these early beauties and it must be a flashing fast food sign for any pollinators on the lookout for sustenance. It is a lesson I will apply to my own garden. 

Rising to the challenge of visiting Anglesey Abbey's wonderful
 Winter Garden with dear friends (can't imagine why I'm laughing)
Unexpected turns in gardens are always good fun. I will never forget the first time I clapped eyes on the Desert Wash at East Ruston Old Vicarage and yelped with surprise (I am not the coolest, calmest garden visitor). At Anglesey Abbey, the way in which The Winter Garden path opens out into a grove of Betula utilis var. jaquemontii is a quieter, but nonetheless lovely surprise. There is an other-wordliness to this area and I am delighted to see that saplings have been planted to extend it. I am not sure what unexpected turn I shall plan for my garden; a patch of flint free soil would be surprise enough at the moment.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
So The Great Garden Challenge is underway. My brain is already reeling with ideas for my own garden and there is a long way to go. It was a lovely day out, but physically demanding on our jaws and we had to stop for no fewer than three coffee/lunch/tea breaks. Tough times indeed, judging by the big smiles on my lovely friends' faces.