Friday 25 May 2018

Is Chelsea a Flower Show?

I may be about to commit horticultural heresy. The exhibitors at Chelsea Flower Show have wowed us with blooms grown to perfection and colour combinations to die for. We have fallen in love all over again with lupins, and drooled over myriad pinks, roses and delphiniums, but for me, once I have had my fill of beautiful flowers, the little bit of Chelsea I take home and try to apply to my own patch involves the quiet, unsung hero of flower shows: foliage. 
Flowers in Janine Crimmins' Very English Garden
Yes, I know the clue is in the name. It’s not called Chelsea Flower Show for nothing, but I wish that it could be the Chelsea Plant Show because the use of foliage is top-class. I also think that the exquisite hard landscaping should get a shout-out, as alluded to in Andrew O’Brien's excellent Gardens, Weeds and Words*, but the Chelsea Plant and Hard Landscaping Show hardly rolls off the tongue.
Chris Beardshaw's garden for NSPCC

The first-rate use of foliage in Tom Stuart-Smith's celebration of 60 years of The Weston Garden and Robert Barker’s Skin Deep Garden will live long in my memories of Chelsea 2018. Good foliage, well combined, is a feast for the eyes (and admittedly, caterpillars, rabbits, and deer, but let us not forget that flowers have their troubles too). Of course, everything is as perfect as it can be at a show. I have yet to see a hungry bunny or a ravenous deer at Chelsea, let alone a gluttonous sawfly.
Tom Stuart-Smith's Weston Garden
Leaves are workhorses. They are photosynthesis powerhouses that retire from their working lives by falling from the plant and removing waste, before rotting down to produce precious leafmould. In short, they are excretophores, which doesn't sound terribly glamorous, but leaves are capable of doing it with such panache. After all, people travel miles to admire pre-waste-disposal autumn
leaf colour. 
Robert Barker's Skin Deep Garden

Long after we’ve finished swooning over fleeting peonies, foliage will still be quietly doing its job and earning its keep in our borders. Thoughtful foliage planting can create a beautiful textural tapestry. Combine it with striking bark, and you have the recipe for a heavenly display that will continue long after the flowers have finished showing off.
Robert Barker
It might seem strange for someone besotted with wildlife to focus on foliage at a flower show instead of pollinator-friendly blooms, but where would the flowers be without  leaves? Beautifully mingling foliage combinations linger longer than purely floral planting. Leaves help to rest the eye and make an excellent foil for showier plants, all while providing valuable ground cover for wildlife and helping to suppress weeds.
Tom Stuart-Smith

Designing with foliage is not just for the ornamental garden. Creative planting may be used in the vegetable patch to great effect. Just think of the combination of corn, beans and squash in Three Sisters planting, or take a look at Mark Gregory's Welcome to Yorkshire garden at Chelsea. Why shouldn’t vegetables feed the eye as well as the belly?  
The Chelsea Flower Show is a place for perfection and dreams. While those at the Saturday sell-off may find themselves sharing a tube carriage with ramrod straight delphiniums, the rest of us leave with more portable souvenirs. In my case, it is a camera filled with inspiring foliage combinations. While foliage 
might not steal the show, its impact is huge. Chelsea is so much more than just a flower show.


Wednesday 23 May 2018

Something Old and Something New for Bees

I've been a busy old blogger, and I'm feeling terribly ashamed that my blog has been forced to take a back seat while I run around willy-nilly, doing other stuff. I have missed being part of this wonderful community and I'm very happy to be back. There will be a longer, more photo-packed post later in the week, but in the meantime, if you would be kind enough to click on the link, you will find a piece about wonderful pollinator-friendly flowers at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018. I hope you enjoy it. 

Friday 2 March 2018

Why Grow Food?

It’s spring! I know this because every gardening book I have ever read declares that in the northern hemisphere, March is in spring. The view from my window doesn’t scream a surge in growth, nodding daffodils, gambolling lambs, and a surfeit of chocolate eggs (not least because you can never have too many chocolate eggs), but I keep reminding myself that last week, in the heady days of February, I was enjoying an al fresco lunch and failing to suppress the overwhelming urge to sow tomatoes.
Needless to say, the tomatoes have germinated and are leaning towards the office window, turning their backs on me and rebuking me for my lack of patience. They have a point. I knew that it would be better to wait a while before I sowed them, but I refuse to feel guilty, because those little seedlings make my heart sing.
This is why I grow food: my life is so much richer for it. The return on the cost of a packet of seeds is not simply the harvest I enjoy eating, it is also how growing that crop makes me feel. Gardening is known to be good for mental health. I am certainly sunnier when I grow food. Yes, the cabbage whites and rabbits might be thorns in my side, but even with their interference, I am a happier person for tending the crops they are hellbent on devouring.
The thrill of seeing seedlings looping their way into the world never diminishes. It is as magical now as it was when I sprinkled cress seeds on blotting paper as a child. I just wish that everyone could grow something to eat - even just a tiny pot of herbs on a windowsill. 
Every year I expand my veg patch, and this year is no exception. There are more strawberries and raspberries; an extension to the damson hedge; and a new compost area. The compost bins will cost nothing as they will be constructed from old crates. The fruit will hopefully earn its keep before very long. I won’t measure the return in kilos though; I will measure it in the pure joy that comes from picking the first berry, and the glorious realisation that there are sufficient damsons to make a crumble.
Apart from growing food in the kitchen garden, I also grow crops in little crates and pots by my office door. There are blueberries, strawberries, salad leaves, herbs and pea shoots. They take up very little room, but they make a difference to my day, providing healthy treats to snack on, or salad leaves for lunch.
The pots and the garden are hidden under a thick duvet of snow right now. The great news is that if we are in spring, then summer is on its way. I only hope that my tomato seedlings feel reassured by this news. 

Monday 5 February 2018

Queen of the Seasons

February is the month for spending more time than is socially acceptable with my ever-expanding collection of seed packets. How I dream of releasing these little powerhouses of hope from their envelopes so that they can snuggle up in my propagator under a soft duvet of warm compost, but as I gaze upon their loveliness, I remind myself that too much, too soon will result in skinny, leggy plants and a seedling housing crisis. 
When Frustrating February gives way to Sowathon Spring, we discover if we have been over-exuberant in our seed purchasing (of course I have). I divide my seed packets into the months during which I plan to sow. If I’m honest, it is just another ploy to spend more time with the darlings, but it also gives me the opportunity to assess how cramped my office will be in April, and how little light I can expect to receive at my desk in early May when I crowbar yet another tray of plants into an already overcrowded space because the soil and the weather aren’t ready for them.
If I were Queen of the Seasons, I would declare that late summer is the time for pricking out seedlings. In spring, we are so busy waging war on weeds that pricking out can easily be overlooked. If only seedlings could adjust to our requirements, we could prick them out at our leisure in August when the sun is shining and the garden is under control. Sadly I am not Queen of the Seasons, so seedlings continue to scream to be pricked out just when our hands are at their coldest, our dexterity is through the floor, and we are being pulled in a gazillion other gardening directions.
Hardening off plants is a joyful task. Carrying them hither and thither, morning and night, is a wonderful way of upping my step count, which in turn makes me feel marvellously virtuous and deserving of another bowl of strawberries and cream. Around this time I invariably find myself with an aphid infestation in the office. It helps that the plants have barred any access to the windows, thereby ensuring that no cleaning is possible so that the spiders are at liberty to enjoy aphidfest in their cobwebs. Visitors are frequently alarmed at the quantity of wildlife in there (best not to mention the year of the office slugs and the convalescing chicken).
If you have stuck with this post thus far, you may have quite rightly gathered that I am struggling with the concept of not sowing. It’s an annual battle. This year, to offset my frustration, I have sown more sweet peas than I know what to do with. They are now clogging up my cold frames and causing me a headache as I meander around the farm looking for frameworks for them to scramble up. I am considering commandeering the kids’ swings for a sweet pea tunnel, or perhaps popping some string around the wheelie bins and masking any unpleasant smells with scented flowers.

There is much to look forward to this summer. It will be fragrant, and filled with aubergines and hyssop. An unlikely combination, but I may have accidentally sown quite a lot of them when they leapt unbidden from the seed tin and made themselves at home in some lovely warm compost. Clever things.... seeds.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Gardening Jobs for January - Get Set for a Fruit Glut

Happy new year! January is the perfect month for appraising our gardens, making plans and compiling lists. In my case this involves staring out of a window, tutting and saying, “Call yourself a gardener? Look at the state of it.” 

There are high spots, low spots and downright weedy spots, but from my vantage point in the house I can safely say that not enough of it is hitting the spot. So where to start? When inclement weather, the latest winter bug, and short days end, what shall I embrace first?
Top of the list is the orchard. Quite frankly it isn’t providing enough fruit, and when it does, Basil our beloved dog steals the harvest. I can’t blame it all on Basil though. Our entire garden, including the orchard, is fairly new* and so patience, the virtue so vital to gardeners, needs to dance to the fore and do its thing (whatever that thing might be). 
Basil pretending not to care that he's on the wrong side
of the gate
Apart from patience, a spot of TLC wouldn't go amiss. Judicious pruning, feeding, battling with the grass that is hellbent on swamping the trees, and mulching would be a good start. Top it off with a jolly good wassail and we might find ourselves inundated with fruit.

Wassailing is a ritual traditionally performed in orchards during January. It involves hanging toast dipped in mulled cider from the branches of an apple tree to attract favourable spirits, and dowsing the roots in more cider to bless the tree so that it produces a good crop in the coming year, all this while making a loud noise and serenading the toast-laden apple tree with a suitable song. 
Show apples - will my produce be joining them this year?
Not if Basil has anything to do with it.
There are plenty of wassailing songs online, although I think I might go a little off-piste and warble "Oh Apple Tree" to the tune of "Oh Christmas Tree" or "O Tannenbaum", mainly because I know how it goes and a degree of confidence about what I'm trying to sing might help me to hit the right notes. 

I am a little concerned that my atonal caterwauling might give the neighbours and passing dog walkers something to talk about. My greatest concern though is that it will provide Basil with a delicious sandwich as he takes his morning constitutional, thereby reinforcing the orchard as one of his favourite feeding grounds. It is definitely time for a spot of dog (or is that owner?) training.

In the time-honoured gardening tradition, here is my list of jobs for January:

1. Prune the apple and pear trees (but not the plums and cherries - we don’t want silver leaf)

2. Clear weeds away from the trees' bases

3. Check that tree ties aren't too tight.

4. Switch on the toaster, grab a bowl of mulled cider, sing at the top of my voice and clobber a couple of pans together while keeping Basil on a lead.

I don't know about you, but I am already optimistic that 2018 will be the year of the long-awaited apple crumble and custard glut. 

Monday 9 October 2017

Roy Lancaster, Achocha, and The Cotswold Wildlife Park

Autumn brings out the forager in me. I love roaming along hedgerows in search of fruit; it makes me feel like the heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel.
I was a scavenging child. My favourite windfalls were almonds. I bashed the shells with a stone until they cracked open. It might not have been the quickest or easiest method, but there was no social media in those days so I could spend happy hours communing with almonds without the pressure of posing for a selfie every five minutes. 
My latest garden grazing took place with the full permission of the head gardener at Cotswold Wildlife Park. Cornus 'Norman Hadden' fruits are blessed with delicious flesh and disgustingly bitter seeds. It is not a fruit I will be caught scrumping any time soon. 
Cornus 'Norman Hadden' fruit
Thankfully, I was visiting with a group of fellow gardeners, and one had a pocketful of cucamelons (as you do). They were wonderful Cornus seed bitterness eradicators. I cannot recommend them highly enough. The cucamelon grower was also carrying achocha. Having never eaten this particular fruit before, I was keen to try it so I took some home for a Sunday breakfast achocha fry-up. It was rather good and made a complete change from the cake that had kicked-off my previous morning.
Cucamelon and achocha
I only eat breakfast cake when I’m travelling. Much of Saturday was spent on the road because with complete disregard for the adage that we should never meet our heroes, I set off on a seven-hour round trip to meet mine. 
Roy Lancaster at Cotswold Wildlife Park
Roy Lancaster, the raconteur with encyclopaedic botanical knowledge, is credited with having introduced some of our most popular garden plants. It would be very easy for him to sit around being the doyen scattering pearls of wisdom at his feet, he has, after all, earned this accolade. But while he is generous in sharing his expertise, his quest for knowledge continues at a staggering rate. As we toured the gardens at Cotswold Wildlife Park, he asked questions about plants that he might not have seen for some years (the gardens are home to some superbly grown rarities). No wonder he is so knowledgeable! He is in his eightieth year, an expert in his field, and still keen to find out more.
I learnt a lot about plants during our tour of the gardens, but the biggest eye-opener was that the most knowledgeable plantsman I am ever likely to meet is still asking questions and learning. We can never stop learning. My gardening hero remains atop his pedestal. I feel privileged and delighted to have met him. 

Do you have a gardening hero?

Cotswold Wildlife Park is very well worth a visit for the plants alone. Needless to say, the animals are wonderful too! 

Roy Lancaster's latest book is 'My Life With Plants'