19 October 2014

Does Your Role Have a Goal

When I was a young thing my boss took me to the Groucho Club and asked me about my five year plan. Huh? Where did I want to be in five years. Did I want her job, or what? It was a very nice lunch but I didn't know what she was talking about.

A little more ambition would have been helpful. Now if there are ever any work perks I try to look beyond the venue and food but not the conversation: that is the important part. Driving 144 miles to spend an hour at Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons wasn't about the Zen-like effect of French luxury but to see what The English Garden magazine had to say about The English Garden Future Fund.


And it is a good story. A grateful reader left them "a considerable sum" in her will and the magazine is sharing it as a bursary every year. There will be up to £5,000 for somebody with a PLAN. An imaginative, horticultural idea. Have you got that?  

The winsome voice of Chris Beardshaw talks you through the Future Fund in this short film. Towards the end of the rhyming pentameters (yes it's a poem) you'll want to catch the lines about "goals" and "roles". It could be life-changing.

Entries are being accepted until the end of November.

22 July 2014

Fetes and Festivals

Back to Cot'sbrooke last week to haunt it once again. The occasion was the garden fete, held on the south lawn. Besides a man on stilts wearing gold lamé trousers, there was juggling and a be-boatered man strolling around with an accordian. The usual crowds gathered around the bric-a-brac. A wurlitzer at one end pumped out 'Nice Work If You Can Get It' while the quintet in the courtyard played Artie Shaw. And there were meringues with double cream.

What I really wanted to see though was the garden in high summer. Phylip Statner the head gardener is a genius and he always grows the latest It plants, while pretending that they just arrived there by chance. Dianthus carthusianorum above, is typical of this.

Unlikely plant combos come together effortlessly; again it's nothing to do with Phylip and his amazing creativity. Above: The Dutch Garden, which is really a parterre of four untamed rectangles surrounded horizontally and vertically by brick.

A regular around the borders is Verbascum chaixii 'Album'. Here it mingles with pink Monarda and the purple foliage of the forest pansy.

Now sights are set on the festival this weekend at Port Eliot: the Fortnums tent, the Ancient Industries stand (shared with Folk at Home) and of course the canvas bags.

19 June 2014

Think Black!

"When is Cottesbrooke Plantfinders Fair coming back?" people often wail. At least around here they do, where we in the East Midlands became used to hosting this very chic event. It was talked about in certain circles with as much anticipation as the Chelsea Flower Show and it was all ours.

Well it ain't coming back. But it's been resurrected as two new shows. One is the self-explanatory Borde Hill Plantfinders' Fair in July, in Sussex. The other is now, this week, in the village of Hampstead. It has been set up by the people who made Cottesbrooke so special (Cottesbrooke memories can be found here) and this time you don't have to drive up the M1. You just take the Northern Line or overground train to NW3 and GROW London is there, on the Lower Fairgound Site on East Heath Road, in the tent left behind by the Affordable Art Fair.

Part of the reason that people loved Cottesbrooke was that it was an edited selection of goods. It was also in a ravishing setting and you could wander around the gardens, listen to speakers who were always amusing and you could buy things. No jostling around show gardens; no anxiety about being assaulted by tat. There is NO TAT.

I'd like to think of myself as Kay Thompson in all of this, the singing editor of Quality Magazine in Funny Face. But we're not talking about pink this time. Remember: "Think black, think black
for the long, long road ahead." See the GROW London programme for details.

22 May 2014

The Chelsea Cheer

At 7 o'clock on a clear morning in May, gardens look pretty good. Inside the Royal Hospital grounds, the finest show gardens on offer are quietly shimmering at the Chelsea Flower Show. With pale sunshine and hardly anyone around, they will never look better than this, in their moment of judgement.
Since it's impossible to see everything at once at the Chelsea Flower Show, the leafy nook that shelters the Artisan Gardens is best saved until you are in need of escape from Main Avenue. But don't forget to go; they are the most inventive and useful gardens in the show. They're small, so people can relate, and they're not flash. They have a story to tell, like the Potter's Garden with WW1 bullets embedded in the soil or the Topiarist's Garden with a bothy and cottagey parterre for indulging a head gardener's personal topiary fetish (as if). 

If you are lucky there will be a Japanese moss garden as well, with a waterfall and lots of little mounds. If you are REALLY lucky you'll visit with a photographer like Howard Sooley. He'll tell you to go round the back and see what a small show garden can do. This one had had considerable attention paid to the sides, with a moss wall infiltrated by ferns and dangly things. At the back: a planted wall with little acers growing out of the top. It suited this woodland setting. And yet it was still neat: the turf around the edge of the back of the garden was precisely cut before giving way to real mud and weeds.
“Look at the back of this garden,” said my other companion. “Then look next door.”

The Paradise on Earth garden won Best in Show for the smaller gardens and as Kazuyuki Ishihara ran on stage roaring, with both fists in the air, he and his crowd showed us a thing or two about celebrating. After that we really wanted the Italian winner of the Best Show Garden, Luciano Giubbilei, to gesticulate and go a bit mad, but he's been living in England for too long.

17 April 2014

Bruce Weber's Porkies

The Garden Museum in London was host to a 'fashion panel' the other night which was impossible to resist: Amanda Harlech (muse); Sam McKnight (legendary hairdresser) and Tim Walker (fantastical photographer). There was also an erudite professor of fashion from Central St Martins called Alistair O'Neill.

Sam McKnight came to gardening later in life but has always been infuenced by flowers. He showed us slides of 70s-style "dandelion frizz looks" as well as "twiggy, branchy looks" which reminded me of the picture of Penelope Tree got up like a tree, with her long hair teased into a birds nest with eggs in it.*

McKnight uses flower shapes and flower colours. But he would never have left Tree's nest as neat as it is: he likes to destroy a hair style as much as he can before it is photographed. So it is with flowers:
"There's something about the decaying of flowers that I find most interesting of all."

Fawn-like Tim Walker started off by showing us a photograph that had been formative for him, from the book Appearances by Martin Harrison.** It was a Bruce Weber shot: a silk frock on what should be a mannequin but without head or arms. It is a collapsing dress with a bunch of roses for a head (except it doesn't look as though it's collapsing: I've always thought it was a model wearing a silk cape with a high collar and roses as a hat). Legend has it that this is a Charles James dress and that the shoot took place at Sissinghurst (home to all the roses shown here).

It is referencing a well-known Beaton shot which is synonymous with 50s Vogue: debs taking tea in pastel shades of silk in a large guilded salon. Dresses by Charles James.

Tim said he'd been asking the editor on that shoot earlier about the provenance of the dress and how Weber managed to track it down. Also, why he shot it at Sissinghurst. Patrick Kinmonth said that actually, it wasn't a Charles James dress but something by Victor Edelstein. "Bruce Weber is very naughty to have said that the photograph was taken at Sissinghurst," said Patrick. "It was shot in my mum's garden."

Tim ended by saying: "It's important that photographers lie."


*Photographed by Clive Arrowsmith
**An excellent book

23 February 2014

On Living —With Taste

The thing about good designers is: they are just trying to make sense of space. There is a logic.

Touring around the garden of an interior designer is an exercise in strict visual hierarchy. When the drawing room is configured, it is inconceivable that the view just outside should not be given lengthy consideration as well. This is certainly the case at The Grove, the garden designed by the late David Hicks, society decorator and taste polemicist.

"It is amazing how few people bother to cultivate their taste," wrote David Hicks in 1968, "and how very many there are with no taste—whether good or bad." 

Taken from one of my favourite coffee table books On Living—With Taste (is it the title?), what David Hicks is saying is that people ignore their innate taste and the decisions that taste requires. Their lives are thus chaotic and less lovely. Hicks' garden is about manning up to decision-making; a designer designing. The garden is all straight lines and vistas, always leading away from the house. The garden exists in terms of the people inside looking out.

On visiting The Grove in Oxfordshire last week I was interested to see plastic pots, harbouring cardoons and tree peonies. Plastic has a place because it's more practical than terracotta and besides it's hidden in cubes of box, or in the case of the cardoons above, in clipped hornbeam. It's not beautiful in itself but as we know, there is beauty in utility.

"Attention to detail must be ruthless," said David Hicks and there is a ruthlessness about this garden.

One of my favourite details were the wooden boxes fixed on brick walls, built to cover "unsightly" garden hosepipes. The grid pattern on each varied from the last but all were distinctly Hicks-ian, like the garden doors and the miles of hornbeam, both hedged or pleached but always clipped.

For design appreciators, The Grove can be viewed by appointment via Ashley Hicks. He also has a lively Instagram account in which the garden makes a regular appearance.

The David Hicks hosepipe box.

25 November 2013

Stourhead for Man and Beast

There is a moment on the Stourhead estate, post-visitor centre, pre-ticket kiosk, when you find yourself walking along a lower road, steep bank either side, bridge overhead. On your right are some pretty little houses and on the left an august inn.

It's a picturesque setting. As with so many National Trust properties a suspension of disbelief takes place, at around this moment. Is this place for real? Yes, it has always been quite real, though the NT version is more thoroughly sign-posted. The house, garden and inn were built 300 years ago with the visitor experience very much in mind. Garden pride led to garden showing-off: What was the point in having a fabulous place if nobody saw it?

Richard Wheeler, who spoke at the Garden Museum last month, is National Specialist in Garden History for the NT and his brief covers over 100 gardens. He knows his stuff. He may not agree with the idea that gardens evolve after their creator has gone ("Can we do better than Vita? No") but this might be because in his view, things haven't changed much. 

The cult of celebrity was in full swing 300 years ago and gardens were visited out of curiosity for Georgian lifestyles of the rich and famous. The stories behind the buildings at Stourhead would have gone over the head of the hoypoloy then as they do today. More of us are educated now but few have a good grasp of Latin. This can also be said of garden design and horticulture: All very nice I'm sure but—is that the tea room over there?

There were three classes of visitor, like the three classes of train travel persisting well into the 20th century. Top people visited their friends on their estates, like be-wigged Bertie Woosters. The middle-classes, the biggest group of garden visitors (who also read Latin) hired a post chaise and stayed at a place like The Spread Eagle Inn, bang in the middle of Stourhead. The third class went by coach or flooded in over the ha-ha.

Keeping people out became more important in the 19th century, with the beginnings of the 'fortress mentality' which is so prevalent today. Even before those days, according to Richard Wheeler: "You had horrific vandalism." The Watch Cottage was built near the Pantheon for just that reason, "But still it got done over."

The garden boy, notoriously "a mine of misinformation," was tipped a small amount for a garden tour. The butler could be persuaded, for considerably more, to open up the house to a better class of person. Things were changing though: Blenheim Palace and Wilton formalised the visitor arrangements soon after being built, with the family living in one set of room and the public shown around another. The days of gamboling up the drive and trying your luck with the housekeeper, like the trio in Pride and Prejudice, were numbered.

A classic visit to a place like Stourhead involved three days: for house, garden and park. Each day would begin from the nearby inn, instead of a train station in London, and visitors would be equipped, naturally, with riding gear. The best was left till last. A day exploring the park meant a freedom to trot, canter or gallop from a few feet higher up: so much more exciting than earth-bound, nylon-clad rambling. The landowner's arcadian vision, seen from between the ears of a horse, was mapped out before you. It could almost feel like yours, for that third day.

Richard Wheeler's reaction to complaints about gardens under his watch looking old and tired is: "Good." For the staunch traditionalist at the National Trust then: bring back the grand tour on horseback.

09 August 2013

It Plants: World's Best List

On writing about Derry Watkins and the experience that is Special Plants near Bath recently, I mentioned in passing that she has a floral crystal ball. Seek her and your garden will be hot. The same could be said for Chris Marchant, the fragrant soothsayer from Orchard Dene, but you have to be 'in the trade' to access her wisdom.

I didn't get round to talking about many plants (in the aforementioned post, published by Gardenista) but the following have been linked with one or both of them and once these It Plants have been remarked on, you'll notice them in all the right places.

Above: our reporter goes incognito at Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire.


Aster divaraticus, spotted at Beth Chatto's last September, comes highly recommended by Chris Marchant. It doesn't get too tall, it doesn't flop, it's a kind of ground cover, it has dark stems and a fresh foliage when other plants are looking a bit haggard. It's an It plant.

Ultimate zeitgeist contender, except that there are two variations. Dianthus carthusianorum, in the Great Dixter-inspired 'Hot Stuff' garden at Hampton Court, is the taller, more magenta one. Dianthus cruentus, dark red and fringed, was pushed into the limelight by Tom Stuart-Smith at Chelsea a few years ago. His new meadow at the Barn Garden (developed with James Hitchmough) is full of it, growing happily out of sand and punctuated with curving grass paths.

Valeriana might test the endurance of tidy gardeners as it self-sows with abandon. But this list has more to do with fashion than tidiness. As seen in the elegant wildflower-strewn Chelsea garden of Sarah Price last year.

Gaura lindheimeri 'Summer Breeze', in Derry Watkins' yard, waiting for the next discerning customer.

Pulsatilla (Pasque flower) grows out of Cotswold chippings at Cottesbrooke Hall and at Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden. The flowers are jolly but the seed heads are what it's all about.

Sanguisorba at Beth Chatto's garden. Looks good with wavy things, thistly things, flowery things. If you love the colour of Knautia macedonica or Cirsum rivulare, choose this; it is more agreeable.

Ladybird poppy (papaver commutatum) in Derry Watkins' garden. Seen at the entrance of Cleve West's Chelsea garden last year, it mingled with Nigella and Geranium 'Bill Wallis', all provided by Orchard Dene.

Verbascum blattaria albiflorum, at Special Plants. A far cry from its cottage garden cousins, and caterpillars, in my experience, are intimidated by it as well. Executive.

Say "species tulip" to any of the taste makers and they'll think of only one: Tulipa sprengeri. The latest to flower, it is worth the wait as the inconspicuous green bud opens to reveal a gorgeous, delicate scarlet. Seen here at Christopher Bradley-Hole's garden at Chelsea this year.

The not-so-humble umbel shows no sign of retiring from the top ten lists. Ammi visnaga is appreciated as much by pollinators as people as are its many variants including orlaya grandiflora. For a perennial version, Chris Marchant says: Go with Silenum wallichianum.

Or, you could forgo the above list and just plant Stipa gigantea, seen waving about at Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden, with anything you like. Honorary mention: Stipa tenuissima. They both hold their own and can give hours of pleasure if you are in a sedentary mood.