Saturday, 23 November 2013

Balboa Park, Broadening the Mind and Bletting

I am languishing in that gloriously indulgent state of post-holiday torpor where everything needs doing and nothing gets done. This predicament is not helped by our medlar crop (all one of it) which catches the sunlight far more impressively than a stack of unopened post and entices me outside for a spot of medlar-gazing every time I am in danger of doing something useful.

Travel broadens the mind; or in my case, the mind and the waistline. Having eaten my way around sunny San Diego (with a few L.A. days thrown in for good measure), I have returned to icy Norfolk besotted with a vegetable I grow only because it is sown when I am raring to get outside and prod some seeds into the soil and it crops so quickly that I feel clever in the catch crop department. There has never been any great desire to actually eat it; until now. I refer, of course, to the potentially fiery and rather beautiful radish. Who could have imagined the transformation from compulsory (because we grew it... again) to desirable (we want to grow it again and again) achieved by showing these little beauties a pan? Next year I shall embrace the humble radish, elevate it out of the compost bin and place it proudly atop the pedestal of great veg (I only hope that my culinary skills are sufficient to fulfil this pledge). 

Calotropis gigantea - Balboa Park Botanical House
It would be a long way to travel solely to expand our experience of salad veg, but thankfully California has much more to offer than revelatory radish dishes. Seeing a creature for the first time is a significant event and despite the fact that the internet is brimming with pictures to download, I like to record these moments with my own camera. I would love to share one of my hummingbird photographs with you, but while I was adept at capturing the flower a hummingbird had just left, the hummingbird itself resembled a clod of clay with blurred fins attached. I now have profound respect for anyone who succeeds in photographing hummingbirds; give me a bumble bee any day of the week.

It was while on a visit to Balboa Park in San Diego that the unthinkable happened: I actually heard myself declaring that the botanical house was so beautiful that I wouldn’t mind if it contained no plants (I was clearly driven to distraction by my failure on the photography front). Happily, this building, which is one of the largest lath structures in the world, is home to a couple of thousand plants, so there was no risk of having to eat my words along with a side order of fries and a slab of Monterey Jack cheese. Away from the botanical house, the rose garden was a mass of colour. Roses bloom here from March to December and with 2,500 plants and almost 200 varieties which are clearly labelled, this is more than a great backdrop to wedding photos; it is also a fabulous resource when selecting roses to grow. The adjacent desert garden is impressive; but the extraordinary juxtaposition of the winter-flowering rose garden and the desert garden will live with me long after the holiday weight gain has been worked off (if indeed I ever get round to enough exercise to burn a single calorie). 

Cacti and succulents against a backdrop of roses
One of the joys of blogging is that, like travel, it can broaden the mind. I particularly enjoy reading about gardeners’ experiences of growing plants in different parts of the world and it is always fascinating to discover that a benign plant in my corner of England is a rampaging bully elsewhere on the planet. I was serenading a plant with superlatives in California when I was stopped mid-flow by a local, who explained that the object of my passion was the bane of his borders. A weed? How can anything as attractive as Asparagus densiflorus be dismissed as a weed? 
Asparagus densiflorus
Perhaps I should look more appreciatively at my own weeds as someone, somewhere might be envying those frothy clouds of ground elder flowers or the beautiful twining stems of bindweed. On the other hand, perhaps I should stop dreaming and start weeding. First though, I will pour myself another coffee and spend a few moments pondering bletting my solitary medlar.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Kitchen Garden Multitaskers

What is your horticultural multitasking superhero? For me, it is the runner bean. It may not be the most fashionable or glamorous of plants, but it has an attractive twining stem; delicious pods; it makes a valuable contribution to structure in the border while taking up little space; it fixes nitrogen in the soil; and the flowers are hugely popular with bees. Could any plant ever match the multitasking capabilities of the mighty bean? Surprisingly, there are a few good-looking contenders in our kitchen garden this year.

Asparagus pea pod
I had been warned that I might struggle to spot the difference between asparagus peas and pencil sharpenings,* so any peas with sharp wings go straight into the compost bin and we eat only young pods. They are so delicious that they cause ructions at the table and I have been compelled to count pea pods onto plates. This painstaking act has triggered happy memories of my own childhood, when bowls of trifle were launched in turn onto kitchen scales to ensure that each of us had a fair share of pudding (I now applaud my mum's patience and in the interests of self-preservation, I never serve trifle). 

Asparagus peas
Asparagus peas (Lotus tetragonolobus) have exquisite foliage and the daintiest of flowers. These little plants would look perfectly at home in an ornamental border or a containerThey are a visual feast and an edible delight. My only regret is that I didn’t grow more of them this year.

Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) has added a touch of the exotic to our plot this summer. Its broad, generous foliage is intriguingly veined and contrasts beautifully with the intricate shamrock-like leaves of oca (Oxalis tuberosa). This undemanding duo have a long growing season and while we wait eagerly for frost and our first excavations to see if there are any edible tubers, our garden will continue to benefit from their exceptional weed-suppressing capabilities, while I get to enjoy an occasional nibble on delicious apple flavoured oca leaves.

Another root crop with beautiful edible foliage is the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas. Most of the plants are in the kitchen garden, but since we do not have a greenhouse, I concealed a few pots indoors and guess what? Sweet potatoes masquerade as houseplants so successfully that no one has mentioned past indoor crop misdemeanours such as the cucumber kitchen curtains fiasco (for which I am profoundly grateful).**

Sweet potatoes incognito
There may be another reason why no one is alluding to cucumbers. My children have long-ridiculed me over my hatred of cucumber skin. They think that peeling cucumbers is a ridiculous waste of time; or they did until this year, when I started growing a variety called ‘Marketmore’. This cucumber thrives outdoors; it is delicious; crops prolifically; and best of all, when harvested young, it has spikes! Even my most vociferous dissenters on the cucumber-peeling front have been forced to eat their words along with their sandwiches. ‘Marketmore’ might not be the prettiest plant on the patch, but by silencing my detractors, it has achieved something that beans can only dream of. 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

F₁ Hybrid Gardening Contortionists

Gardeners are extraordinary hybrids of the here and hence. Our feet are firmly planted in the fine tilth of today, but our brains keep galloping off to the future. My body is currently in autumn (which sounds like a comment on my age rather than the season), but my mind has been bouncing around like a lamb in spring ever since the bulb catalogues started dropping through the letter box in July, which was, of course, when the rest of my body was luxuriating in mid-summer. 

It may sound improbable when we stand up, stiff-backed after a long weeding session, but gardeners are marvellous time-flexible contortionists with futuristic heads grafted onto gardening bodies (I am now getting an image of Sarah Raven rootstock with a scion of The Jetsons). This arrangement means that we have the capacity to escape from the more challenging aspects of any season. The very notion of winter without seed catalogues makes me shiver; but if my head is in high summer, cold weather becomes more bearable.

Last winter (the one which seemed to last forever), my mind was abuzz with autumn pollinators and as a result, butterflies and bees are now enjoying Asterfest in the farmhouse garden. I have been particularly impressed with Aster amellus 'Veilchenk├Ânigin', which is short (around 35cm), stocky and a strong violet colour; but at the moment the pollinators seem to prefer Aster amellus 'King George'.

Small Tortoiseshell on Aster amellus 'King George'
Autumn is the season of butternut squash, brambling and bulb planting. I mention butternut squash since my fondness for it may shortly be put to the test. Unless there is a catastrophic squash meltdown, we will soon be harvesting 10 socking great fruits from three 'Sweetmax' plants grown from seed sown in March. It is the first time that I have grown this variety and if it tastes good, I shall certainly sow it next year (head in spring again). 

I am unable to work out whether I am becoming more clumsy in the garden or if my manners are improving with age, but I seem to be spending an increasing amount of time apologising to plants for accidentally deadheading perfectly good flowers, or digging up bulbs. Last week, while my mind was mulling over springtime sources of nectar and pollen, I inadvertently dragged a daffodil bulb from the soil. I don’t know who looked more shocked: me; the daff; or the passers-by who overheard me begging a bulb’s pardon. Once the daff was tucked safely back in bed, I scurried, red-faced, back to the house to add Crocus tommasinianus to my plant list. Come February, the lawn will be awash with purple; bees will be blanketed in pollen; and with any luck, my blushes may finally have faded.

The hedgerow fruits are looking resplendent in the autumn sunlight and as usual the plumpest, juiciest blackberries are just out of reach. This is no bad thing because they can be enjoyed by winged wildlife and my sense of guilt about gathering berries is assuaged. Recently, I have been leaving fruit on the lower branches too, as there have been several sightings in the farm hedgerows of a rare species which migrates from its natural habitat to feast on ripe blackberries. One of my proudest photographic achievements has been capturing two of these shy creatures on camera. 

Please remember that the Lesser Spotted Onesie Brambler hunts in packs and should only be disturbed if you are in possession of a fully prepared crumble topping and custard. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Great Escape.... Gardener Style

Is it any wonder that gardeners love visiting gardens? Other people’s plots provide us with inspiration, confidence boosters, tea, cake and shopping opportunities. We return home fizzing with ideas and cradling the must-have plants which leap into the trolley we unwittingly drag behind us whenever we enter a plant sales area.

The Exotic Garden at East Ruston Old Vicarage
We all have our favourite kind of garden. I particularly enjoy newer gardens because I like to return and see them as they mature. I have visited the garden at East Ruston Old Vicarage over many years and have delighted in watching it develop. On a recent tour I was intrigued to spot a patch of bare soil and an array of splendidly funky obelisks. A plot under construction is the gardening equivalent of a cliffhanger and one thing is certain: I will be back to see how these borders come along. 

There are exciting developments at Holkham Hall too, where the 6.5 acre walled garden is being renovated. This year, gardeners and volunteers have planted in the region of 5,500 plants which are already attracting plenty of pollinators. Holkham Walled Garden has a blog*, so even if you are unable to visit, do follow the progress of this ambitious project. 

Arena of Plants, Holkham Hall
Piet Oudolf's Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe underwent extensive work in 2009 to re-establish two-thirds of the garden and look at it now!

Arranged in large groups  - don't think threes; think thirty-somethings - this is high-impact planting for humans and wildlife alike. It is not the only garden at Pensthorpe;  Julie Toll's Wave Garden is a serene and tranquil space and the Wildlife Habitat Garden is a lesson in providing for the needs of butterflies, bees, dragonflies, damselflies, amphibians, reptiles, beetles and bats. 

Common Blue Butterfly at Pensthorpe
There is something reassuring about seeing other gardeners gardening. When I visited East Ruston, Alan Gray was planting Sedum; at Holkham, volunteers were weeding; and at Pensthorpe, there was a gardener toiling in the Millennium Garden. To non-gardeners, the concept of a gardener taking a day out to a garden to watch a gardener garden might sound a bit like a cross between a busman's holiday and a bad tongue twister, but we return from these gardeners' getaways raring to tackle the weeds, or tweak a planting scheme and create space for the plants which slipped so cheekily into our shopping trolleys. 

 One-year-old border in our Farmhouse Garden 
We have a lot of landscaping work ahead of us at the farm and since this is our soon-to-be courtyard garden (I hope your imagination is firing on all cylinders), I am going to be in serious need of inspiration, confidence boosters, tea, cake and shopping opportunities.

Perhaps it's time for another day out.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Border Beetroot, Anne Boleyn and a Clouded Yellow

If variety is the spice of life, then this has been a vindaloo week. Despite spending too much time jostling in the underground with not even a cut flower for company (if I had my way, nosegays and buttonholes would be compulsory for commuters), I managed to escape into the great outdoors for two wonderful, inspiring days.

My first fresh air was at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. The former home of the Boleyn family (Anne is said to have been born there) is one of my favourite places to walk and after an enjoyable afternoon exercising my legs and jaw with friends, I withdrew to the gardens to commune with the borders.

The hotter end of the double borders was looking particularly exuberant. I was reminded of your comments following a recent post on creative vegetable growing* so I thought I would share this photo showing ruby chard and beetroot ‘Blood Red’ making a valuable, yet cost-effective contribution to the planting scheme.  

The other big discovery I made in the double borders was that time is no great healer where plants are concerned. I have always loved Monarda, but after years of sorry plants with powdery mildew, I took the difficult decision to try to live without this beauty in our new garden. Then Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ caught my eye and guess which plant has been catapulted to the top of my must-have list? 'Gardenview Scarlet' has better resistance to powdery mildew than most cultivars, so I am hoping for a happily-ever-after ending to my Monarda love story.

Midweek, I found myself sharing shed space with representatives from nurseries and some of the most well-known gardens in the U.K. for a trade show focussing on sustainable ornamentals production; a subject close to my heart. We gathered at Howard, an excellent wholesale perennials nursery, where we were treated to enjoyable and enlightening presentations, followed by a tractor/trailer ride around the field grown areas of the nursery.

It was a day to consider issues of an important and serious nature, but maintaining an air of professionalism and composure is a challenge when you are bouncing merrily along on the back of a tractor through thousands of glorious perennials. The sight of a Clouded Yellow butterfly did little to quash my excitement.

Clouded Yellow butterfly
After a fascinating and entertaining presentation by Fergus Garrett on sustainability at Great Dixter, we turned our attention to sustainable growing media. This is a hot topic for me, as I choose not to buy compost containing peat. Using peat in the garden is inappropriate on so many levels: loss of habitat; CO2 emissions; and, as a friend pointed out recently, it is wrong to use something which has taken thousands of years to form, to grow an annual which will be dead in a matter of weeks. 

Scabious proving its credentials as a Peacock butterfly
 magnet at the nursery.
You may be surprised to learn that there are no plans in the U.K. to ban, or even place a tax on using peat; and while there are targets regarding reducing the use of peat in horticulture, these are targets - not legislation. Away from the trade, I wonder if gardeners really care about peat. Do people buy the cheapest compost irrespective of ingredients? Perhaps some gardeners are still smarting after having tried one of the earlier, less successful peat-free alternatives. I hope not. Peat-free compost has moved on; it's time we all did. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Welcoming Wildlife

Isn't it great when a plan starts to come together? When I began our garden last year, my main aim was to encourage wildlife by selecting plants which would offer a source of food and shelter. One year on, we are seeing a marked increase in the numbers of bees, butterflies and birds. Perhaps this is because of the weather and nothing to do with gardening, but when I go outside and find myself in a flurry of butterflies and I see them settling on plants which were selected to meet their needs, I feel certain that I have made sound choices. 

I garden organically; I have never gardened in any other way. If you should ever visit our garden, you will receive no apology for lawn weeds because we rejoice when we see bees enjoying flowering clover in our lawn and we tread very, very carefully! 

Echinops ritro
Gardening for wildlife might be my main aim, but I am selfish enough to design our garden for my requirements too. I have posted before about my need for readable structure in the garden* and although I select plants for other creatures, I want to see them arranged in a way which pleases my eye. Happily, bees and butterflies enjoy plants en masse as much as I do.

Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum'
The farmhouse garden is still far from mature - a budget blown on rabbit fencing put paid to any hope of planting big specimens - but it is beginning to do its job and we have a lively garden where we can enjoy a privileged, close view of the creatures visiting the plants

Hyssopus officinalis
I feel very strongly that our decisions make a difference and while we can’t encourage wildlife in if it isn’t within sensory distance, we can welcome visiting creatures with a delicious feast, somewhere to stay and a supportive environment for any offspring.

Knautia macedonica
My next challenge is to try to ensure food and shelter for wildlife all year round and I hope you will forgive me if I return each month to this subject which is so important to me. I am fascinated to hear about any plants you have found to be particularly attractive to beneficial insects and other wildlife Meanwhile, I will grab myself a coffee and take a few minutes to enjoy the company of today's garden guests.  

* The structure rant can be found at:

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Creative Vegetable Growing and the Harvesting Dilemma

Many moons ago, inspired at a lecture by the doyenne of creative vegetable growing, Joy Larkcom, I designed and planted a beautiful patchwork quilt of cut-and-come-again salad leaves. As I watered in the last lettuce, I knew that this edible blanket of burgundies and greens would look even better once the plants had knitted together, so I postponed capturing my creation on film. 

RHS Wisley - several years ago, but since
the advent of digital photography.
The next morning, before I left for work, I decided to take my morning coffee by my lettuce (as you do) and to my horror, I was met by bare soil and a few stumpy stalks. For unbeknownst to me, lurking under the canopy of the cedar tree was a hungry muntjac deer with excellent taste in salad leaves, but no respect for lettuce art. 

Since then, I have created pleasing, yet fleeting edible foliage combinations which have been enjoyed by rabbits, pigeons and caterpillars, but not slugs. You may recall that I blithely blogged about the lack of slugs in the farmhouse garden  well, I have had my comeuppance. Why wouldn't we have slugs in the farmhouse garden? Because there was finer fare around the corner in our new kitchen garden. 

Having been raised in a hospitable household, my natural instinct was to offer my guests a drink. Being slugs, their chosen poison was beer. Ten little beer-filled containers were duly set out for the molluscy revellers and despite initial fears that I was creating a hugely popular gastropod gastropub crawl, the slugs have been merrily availing themselves of one beer too many and our veggies are finally showing signs of recovery. 

Growing food decoratively is a tricky business, because even if it survives the excesses of slugs, deer, rabbits and birds, we will eat it and in so doing wreak havoc on our edible scheme. Cut-and-come-again lettuces succeed in the world of food art because we can pinch the odd leaf here and there and not spoil our salad tapestry (it is a pity that no one told the muntjac about this valuable attribute of these leaves).  

There are plenty of edibles which look great despite regular harvesting, but many crops simply look gappy. I have tried succession sowing and planting, intercropping and the occasional selectively placed rhubarb forcer, but these methods are too time-consuming for me at the end of a working day and a rhubarb forcer looks downright incongruous in the middle of a patch of onions. Consequently, I have been on the lookout for a solution and I think I have found it. Instead of seeing a gap in the garden; I see a meal I have enjoyed. Absurd as it might seem, this desperate attempt at reframing seems to be working. 

I finally stopped fretting about gaps in the veggie borders following a tour of the two acre organic kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Now I think, if they are good enough for Raymond Blanc, they are good enough for me. Of course, a two Michelin Star chef in my kitchen, waiting to prepare my homegrown veg would be splendid.... well... I need to fantasise about something as I offer a top-up of beer to the molluscy guests on a tour of my own rather less extensive, but equally organic kitchen garden. 

P.S. If you have never read anything by Joy Larkcom before, I urge you to take time to look at her work. Her books introduced me to so many of the crops I enjoy growing today and I frequently revisit her writing when I am looking for inspiration. 
The last two photos show the kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, where the crops look great, but taste even better.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Does Anyone Know When The Gardening Year Starts?

The gardening year is a mysterious concept since it appears to have no official beginning or end. This is hardly surprising given that gardeners in one region are merrily casting clouts for summer, while elsewhere people are pouring themselves into thermal underwear and hunkering down for a long, harsh winter. Matters are further complicated by the fact that in some areas the gardening year is six months long. Even so, wouldn't it be wonderful to have a day when we celebrated our gardening new year?

Wisteria at Magdalene College, Cambridge

Perhaps there is a global New Year Garden Party to which I haven't been invited (which is a shame, because I would turn up to the opening of a compost bin), but I suspect that we all have our own personal gardening new years which are sparked by significant events such as the quiet emergence of a favourite plant or the ceremonial plugging-in of the propagator. 

Wisteria at St Michael-at-Plea Church, Norwich

My gardening new year begins with an event which occurs with annual regularity sometime between mid-March and the end of May. It is the point at which I make a new year’s resolution. The trigger for this is that I get inspired and excited by someone else’s garden or the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and resolve to do better things with my own plot of land. This is all good and well, but 2013 is turning out to be particularly inspiring and I have resolutions coming out of my ears on a daily basis and this has resulted in me celebrating more new years than the Queen has annual birthdays. My latest resolution has been prompted by this...

Wisteria sinensis, a lovely plant in someone else’s garden. In my garden it tends to get neglected. I know perfectly well how to keep this exuberant climbing shrub under control, but by the time I have helped to whip my clients' plants into shape, I fancy a change of gardening tasks, so I give my Wisteria a half-hearted secateurial reprimand and trundle off to do something more interesting. If you have ever been the custodian of one of these brutes, you will know that pruning Wisteria seems like a never-ending task. No sooner do you turn your back than it gathers up a drainpipe and hurls it to the ground. Ignore it and it will come tap, tap, tapping on your window and should you open the window, you may very well find yourself sharing house space with it. 

 Wisteria at the window

Our Wisteria sinensis was growing in the garden when we bought the farm and although I would not choose to plant anything with the potential to grow so large, I cannot grub out a healthy, happy plant which would behave perfectly well if I made time to train it properly. In any case, it is loved by bees and offers great shelter to birds, so it is too valuable to part with. As I type, the front door is open so that I can enjoy the scent of its fragrant lilac flowers and I must admit that I love this plant in spite of its excesses. So today’s resolution is to bring order to the purple tangly chaos. Tomorrow? Well that’s another year. * **

* I will start by gently removing unwanted new growth over the summer, then in February when there are no birds nesting, our Wisteria will see some serious lopper action. 
** Since this is a new year's resolution, I reserve the right to break it. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Chelsea Flower Show - the hot colour for 2013

Something feisty and demanding has infiltrated the Chelsea Flower Show this year. From paving to plants, it has given a warm glow to the event. It may have been a surprisingly subtle return for a loud colour, but orange is most definitely back.

Paul Hervey-Brookes uses Geum 'Prinses Juliana' and Carex flagellifera 'Auburn Cascade' in his design for Brand Alley (above), picking out the colour in the wall. He isn't the only designer to embrace the warmth; the WaterAid artisan garden is ablaze with marigolds.

Elsewhere, orange is used in a more understated way. Here, in Ulf Nordfjell's garden for Laurent-Perrier, the warm colour of the travertine stone is picked up in Lilium 'Orange Marmalade' and Iris 'Beverly Sills'. 

In Chris Beardshaw's garden for Arthritis Research UK,  Eschscholzia californica unfurl alongside Iris 'Supreme Sultan' (which will soon be showing its true colours - deep orange and purple). 

Stoke-on-Trent's show garden has a palette focussing on orange, apricot and copper.

In Scape Design's garden, After the Fire, the contrast between the orange pool, terracotta seats, the vivid green new leaves and the charred tree trunks is striking.

Even that 1970's must-have orange toy, the Space Hopper, made a comeback   (I spotted two) - this one is in the NSPCC garden.

Orange can be a difficult colour to use in the garden because it clashes so readily with other colours and is so demanding of our attention. Some people find this quality stimulating; others find it too challenging. Used well, it can link plants, hard landscaping and buildings together. Its propensity to clash with other colours such as strong, hot pinks can be exciting, yet it can be used more subtly to enhance bronze foliage. 

Chris Beardshaw's Arthritis Research UK garden
It may be challenging, but a twist of orange really can lift a planting scheme. It certainly worked its magic at Chelsea this year.