Saturday, 23 June 2012

And on to RHS Hyde Hall

So after the upheaval of Beth Chatto's garden, would Hyde Hall be the disappointment instead?  I am a westerly and northerly living person.  London is familiar territory but outside the city I feel at home in Devon and Wales and the North West of England.  East is a bit alien to me.  I have been to Rosemoor in Devon a number of times and to Harlow Carr in Yorkshire.  I liked Harlow Carr, loved parts of Rosemoor, and made a rushed and disappointing trip to Wisley.  I don't know whether the disappointment was a result of the rush and I won't find out until I have the opportunity to go again.

So Hyde Hall was off my patch.  I knew very little about it.  I had no real expectations.  I remembered something about the garden specialising in plants for drier conditions and I thought Matthew Wilson had been curator of the garden in the early 2000s but that was about it.  Both of those things made me inclined to be interested in it but I came with an open, even vacant, mind.

The garden lies on a huge and windy site in Essex, one of the driest counties in Britain.  As we arrived the sun was shining but the wind was streaming in the trees.  Ox eye daisies were blowing on either side of the drive up to the carpark.  You could see shelter belts and hedges all over the place.

But inside it was just gently breezy and quiet too.

There were things I loved: huge beds with great sweeps of colour, challenging your sense of how much of a single plant your eye wants to see.  In the case of this salvia (nemerosa caradona I think) the answer was loads.  There were easy things done very well: alliums with nepeta, alliums with hardy geraniums.  Sometimes simple things done on a grand scale are better than self conscious attempts at cutting edge.

There was a beautiful shrub rose garden where most of the roses were higher than your head.  We walked right inside it on a tiny and inviting path and were amazed to find that no one else did.  It was exhilarating being right in the middle of the scented tumble of flower, soft and messy and lush.  I am not really a rose person and the more formal rose garden and rose walk left me cold but this was a sensual treat, colour and perfume trailing in your face as you walked.

The dry garden was interesting rather than moving and I do like to be moved in a garden.  The interest came from the relevance to my own garden with its stony soil.  Not everything that will grow in Essex will grow up a hill in North Wales but a surprising number of deeprooted plants will (docks again!).  So there was a lot to look at and think about but the planting was bitty and unsatisfying.  Perhaps it was the contrast with the tour de force which is Beth Chatto's gravel garden where the movement and shapes of the planting were as powerful as the colour.

There was also some exotic planting (cannas and the like) which looked thin and sad to my eye.  I am always acutely aware that a photograph taken one day or one week cannot be taken as anything more than a passing moment, not a judgement.  Heaven knows there are enough occasions in my garden when last week's fleeting beauty has morphed into this week's empty hole and sagging, snail snagged foliage.  Exotic planting is not my thing either, fortunately you might think, living where I do.  Which came first, the hill or the affection for hardy geraniums, the chicken or the egg?  So with that health warning, and accepting that by the end of July it will all be utterly transformed, let me show you what I mean:

But generally Hyde Hall was intriguing, occasionally exciting, sometimes dull but definitely worth visiting.  I might not be back because it is so very far away from home territory, but I am glad I went.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Visiting Beth Chatto's garden

Some people won't go back to a place they loved as a child.  What if the cavernous green darkness with a warren of tunnels in which you built a den and spent all day hidden from view is just a gap in a rather scrubby  patch of rhododendron?  What if the apple tree you climbed and watched the world from has been taken down and the field turned into a carpark?  I felt a bit the same about going to Beth Chatto's garden.  Might it  be better not to risk disappointment?

I seem to have been reading Beth Chatto's books all my serious gardening life, from the time when the children were old enough for swings and footballs to be banned from the garden and the children sent to the park.  What an innocent time that seems now.  I suppose they must have been about nine years old, the same sort of age they were when they started going to school and the local shops by themselves.  Would that happen now or would they be kept close to home with trampolines in the garden and computer games in the bedroom?  I digress.

It is hard to remember now that Beth Chatto's philosophy of matching the plants to the conditions in which they want to grow was once revolutionary, so orthodox has that thinking now become.  I read about her dry garden, her woodland garden and her green tapestry as I moved from an occasional visitor to garden centres to a more serious gardener and I return to these books again and again, finding inspiration and meaning in one year in a section which I whizzed through unthinkingly the year before.

We were coming to the end of our Devon garden visit week last year when someone, I can't now remember who, mooted the idea of a trip to see Beth Chatto's garden as our next venture.  Linda had been before, more than once, but Karen and I had not seen it.  What a brilliant idea!  It is so far away from my home in Wales that I would never chance upon it.  It needed a special trip.  We could combine it with Hyde Hall and perhaps some others.  It was agreed.

But as the time grew closer I began to feel almost nervous.  I knew I would love the company and that losing myself in a week of garden obsessing would be a treat, but what if Beth Chatto's garden itself was a disappointment?  What if the gentle, incisive intelligence of the books had become, on the ground, a cliche, a series of over familiar images without the power to move or surprise?

We drove down in pouring rain, leaving a dry and sunny Wales and heading eastwards, to the driest part of the country, through gusts of rain under thudding skies.  We stayed at  Zig Zag cottage, in Great Oakley.  If you ever go down that way I can't recommend it enough.  I got used to its gentle cosseting remarkably quickly and was quite surprised this morning when my breakfast did not come on a starched white cloth, with tea in a silver teapot.

Wednesday we decided would be the day for Beth Chatto.  It was sunny and warm and the wind had dropped.  We arrived only minutes after the garden had opened.

And I was blown away.

The planting is sophisticated, thoughtful, multi-layered, as interested in form and shape as in colour.  Wherever I looked in the gravel garden there were combinations that made me want to weep, whether at their beauty or my own inadequacy I am not sure.  The sense of a single controlling mind was strong.  There was a coherence about it, both in the pinks, greys and purples of the colours, occasionally shot through with a jolt of orange or yellow, and the curving paths and rhythms of pools and spires.  Here and there areas were being replanted and then you could see in part how this was done, how many plants of one kind you need to create these satisfying billows of colour.  It was grown up.  It was intelligent.  It was both sweeping and yet done with, and repaying, close attention, like a painting yielding new delights to close scrutiny.

This is why I don't generally do garden visiting.  It made my vision for my own garden, normally quite strong, blur and wobble and start to run down the page like a picture in the rain.  All the straight lines of hedgerows and allotment style beds with which we are trying to produce something where the shapes on the land are functional, almost utilitarian, trying to honour the history of our field as part of a small scale working, almost subsistence farm - why was I not using curves and sweeps and softness of shape?  Was I just totally, fundamentally getting it wrong?

Down in the damp garden it was better.  I don't do this kind of planting.  I have no water and the luscious plants of the damp garden wouldn't last a minute up on my hillside.  Here I could just walk and wander and admire again the subtleties of form and the wonderful use of trees.

Here are Karen and Linda absorbed in another great sweep of planting.  When I go through my photographs there are no pictures which do not throw up a combination like this hosta with the persicaria behind it, casually, as if naturally, offering the ebb and flow of form.

The woodland garden too was a magical place, painting the ground with foliage and flower and throwing great spires of climbing hydrangea up into the canopy of trees.

It was very, very beautiful.  I tried to do an Anne Wareham on it.  Anne runs a website dedicated to exploring gardening as an art form (great site, do go and look at it) and is keen to encourage the use of the critical as well as the admiring eye.  Are there things I would criticise?  Well the scree garden doesn't do anything for me.  It is an area predominantly for alpines and small scale plants which would get lost in the sweep of planting elsewhere.  It is the sweep that excites  me so I am not the right audience for it.  But essentially I loved it.  It has a good cafe and a fabulous nursery too.

That night I lay in my huge bed on my linen sheets and couldn't sleep.  I could do this, I could do that.  I could completely replant the side garden.  I could use this or that plant and throw hydrangea petiolaris up an ash tree.  My mind whirled and I tossed and thrashed and images swam about in the night.  The next day things had steadied a bit but I was still assailed by someone else's pictures and overwhelmed by the occasional urge to give up the whole enterprise and buy a flat with a balcony.

Now that I am home my vision is clearing.  I see that the plants I brought back with me were chosen with an idea in mind, even if I haven't worked it out to the last detail yet, and weren't just a response to being faced with crowd of unfamiliar beauties.  I still feel a bit unsettled by the experience (and to a lesser extent by Hyde Hall which is another blog altogether) but a bit of being unsettled is not a bad thing.  Do her plants die though I keep asking myself?  I look back at my garden diary and see how many of the plants I have brought in over the last couple of years have turned up their toes despite my assiduous research and care.  I wish I were in my thirties and not in my fifties.  Life is definitely not going to be long enough.

It's a good job I only go garden visiting once a year, any more and I would give up completely.  I am off outside now to contemplate my docks.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Garden obsessing

Tomorrow I am having a few days away with Karen and Linda going garden visiting.  We did this last year in Devon.  We went to The Garden House, Rosemoor, Glebe Cottage and Wildside.  We talked gardens, walked gardens and were cheerfully obsessive.  There was no need to worry about boring a non-gardening friend by taking too long or taking too many pictures.  It was bliss.

This year we are going to see Beth Chatto's garden and the RHS garden at Hyde Hall.  I can't wait!  I have been reading Beth Chatto's books all my gardening  life and she has shaped the way I approach the challenges of my soil and my site in a way which no one else has.  My obsession with growing what wants to be here is fed by frequent references to her "Gravel Garden" and "Woodland Garden" books.  I am fascinated to see what grows without watering in her dry Essex garden.  We must have more rain here in Wales but plants that do best for me put down long roots (docks for example!) in my thin stony soil and I am expecting some inspiration.

I have a bag to pack, a camera and phone to charge and some maps to find and then I am off.

See you on Friday.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

My herb garden

Growing herbs is one of life's great unsung pleasures: it is easy, it fills your garden with bees and pollinating  insects, it transforms your cooking.  Once your herb garden is established it doesn't need a lot of your time either.  I have been giving my herb garden a bit of attention today, pulling out the odd weed, discouraging the mint from world domination, potting up new seedlings to give to friends and family.  The chives in flower are as lovely as any border plant.

Here they are jostling with culinary mint.  I grow all sorts of mints: lime, lavender, apple and spearmint as well basil mint.  You would hardly believe that the leaves really smell of anything other than menthol but they do.  The basil mint in particular has taken off.

Some are more vigorous than others.  In our garden it is the culinary mint and the basil mint which are romping all over the place while the others sit more decorously in their slate lined boxes.

Sweet marjoram is a favourite with bees and butterflies when it flowers.  I don't really use it for cooking but I love to see it, half grown through with michelmas daisies, when both are covered with butterflies in September.  Marjoram is one of the toughies, like the others in the same bed:

 A golden leaved sage

A culinary sage.  I like the look of the purple sage very much but find that this one has a finer flavour in cooking.

And thyme.  Why is one half of this plant flowering and the other not?  I have no idea!

Back against the garden wall are all sorts of other things which don't mind the stony soil.  They do at least have real soil.  The sages and thymes thrive in the thinnest of soils possible.

Lovage is one of my favourite herbs.  It is a beautiful, almost stately plant and the leaves have a faint flavour of celery.

Next to it is lemon balm, seriously reduced in size this year and looking all the better for it.

Borage and camomile both took a while to settle down having been grown from seed - too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet - but both look healthy now.

You can't have a herb garden without rosemary.  The bees love its blue flowers and rosemary and garlic with roast lamb is my favourite summer roast.  I love herb jellies as well, with herbs floating in clear, pink apple jelly, and rosemary works wonderfully for that.

Let's finish with two of my absolute favourite herbs, as much for the beauty of the plant as for their flavour and usefulness.

Fennel is just glorious, a soft green feathery fountain.  When it flowers it will be over my head.  If I were an insect I would live in a feathery tower of fennel.

And  lastly sweet cicely.  The finely cut foliage is beautiful in itself but the white foam of flowers, reminiscent of a less creamy elderflower, are the emblem of early summer.  Cut them down as they go over though or it seeds itself about with abandon.

If you are interested in herbs, their history and how to make a herb garden today, I am running a course here.

If you have never tried them put aside a sunny patch in the garden, not with your best soil, perhaps somewhere where other things struggle, and have a try.  Truly you won't regret it!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

End of month view for May

In May the weather took off and with it my garden: weeds, flowers, grass, everything suddenly galloping for the sky.

Suddenly everything is lush and full.  I looked back to last year's end of month view for May (this is one of the great things about this idea!) to see if my sense of an extra richness this year is borne out.

It is perhaps harder to tell in comparison with a smaller picture and enlarging the photo to the size I am using this year makes it lose focus.  The hardy geraniums were further on last year (the faithful Johnson's blue is at the front) but the biggest difference this year is the alliums.

Last autumn I planted fifty allium Purple Sensation from Peter Nyssen in the side garden, split between the two beds.  And they are a sensation and even fifty is not enough.   In the autumn I will put some more in.

This is a good time of year in the side garden.  The day lilies are just about to open and the oriental poppies are ready to flower. For a couple of weeks they will be stunning.  Then they will need to be cut back and I will have the usual problem with how to fill the great slash of a gap they will leave.  I had hoped to help this with a Miscanthus Kleine Fontane which should just now be beginning to send up its spikes of green but it is looking decidedly small and sad.  I am also disappointed to find that the eremurus which were so spectacular last year have barely a flower spike between them.  It is always hard to get things established up here and, while we wait the couple of years for new plants to settle in, it is very easy for them to be overwhelmed by the old stalwarts who have become tough as old boots.  I think I need to police the toughies a bit more carefully when they have new companions.  Perhaps they are a bit like hens, establishing a pecking order!

Out in the field the orchard is at an in between stage.  The early native daffodils and primroses have long gone and the allium sphaerocephalon have yet to come.  The meadow buttercups are out, holding their flowers high and dainty above their heads, so much more beautiful than their insidious creeping cousins, but the ox eye daisies which I had hoped would shimmer around the trees  have not really established.  There are a couple of small patches left from the ones I grew from seed and put in as plug plants last year but they have not spread.  I think we left it a little too late to cut last year and then did not keep the grass short enough.  I also suspect that I need to get yellow rattle going in here to weaken the grass.  Still it is pleasure to walk through when the sun shines and the sorrel and long grasses brush against your legs.

This is a cheat's photo of the cutting garden!  Only this one square of the eight is actually doing anything.  The others are filling up, with dahlias and cosmos so far, but there is a lot of bare earth and we are a long way from flowers.  This year I grew quite a lot of tulips for cutting in here and produced a much better show in April and early May than usual but there is quite a gap now until the sweetpeas start flowering and the annuals I sowed in spring are big enough to make an impact.  I need to bridge the gap between May and July somehow - autumn sowings of annuals? biennials?  Any ideas would be very welcome!

I haven't previously included this in the end of month view but I thought I would start showing the vegetable garden which has now become Ian's kingdom.  The potatoes are filling out nicely, the peas and beans are in, there are brassicas under the protective mesh (the only way we have found to cope with cabbage whites) and sweetcorn has just been planted out.  Beyond the grass path the world's largest rhubarb patch continues to produce and artichokes and onions are flourishing.  I have reluctantly given up my attempts to grow asparagus.  I love it.  I would dearly love an asparagus bed, but after three years of trying I think I just have to accept that it doesn't like me.

And here is the first photograph of the new annual wildflower meadow (with thanks to Karen and to Sarah Raven for the inspiration) with some sign of life in it.  Previously it looked like this:

The green netting was to discourage small boys and young dogs from running all over it.  I cannot tell you how much work this has been and even now every time I go out I am pulling up small docks which are trying to establish themselves.  Do you know the weasel phrase in all DIY books about decorating "Prepare and make good surfaces before painting"?  There is a gardening version which goes something like "Remove all traces of perennial weed".  Huh.

Anyway after hours and hours of digging up weed and raking and digging up again and raking again, we sowed a wildflower mix from Pictorial Meadows   I muse about this area obsessively, returning again and again to watch for growth, wondering if there is too much grass, knowing that there is hogweed, trying to remove yet more baby docks.  But if you look closely the new sweep of green looks like this:

Is the growth all too dense?  You can hardly thin out a wild flower meadow!  Please, please, please work and be, on the ground, something like the meadow in my head.

The sunny bank is looking good.  Last year I bought the most beautiful iris at the Malvern Show, Black Swan.  It had one solitary flower spike which was broken by some means (dogs, children, footballs, stray badgers) so I never got to see it.  This year it is flowering spectacularly.

And here is the kitchen garden.  I love May and June, and May and June in the sunshine are close to heaven itself, but it is raining here now and supposed to rain tomorrow from the forecast.  With apologies to all those who were intending to do something to celebrate the Jubilee tomorrow, I welcome the rain.  My garden needs it, a slow, steady drenching right down to the roots.  And it means I can take a day off from looking at things in the greenhouse and wondering where to put them.  Whatever you are doing this weekend, have a good one.

Thanks as always to Helen at Patientgardener for hosting the end of month view.