29 April 2011

Spring Bulletin (7)

Pheasant eggs, laid on leaves.

Gardening Clichés 1(a)

Well-worn phrases are easy to ignore, as they can be blindingly obvious, and rather boring. Right plant for the right place might be the foundation for all garden knowledge but it’s more fun to experiment and put the right plant in the wrong place, until you get rid of it a year or two later.

Can brambles ever be the right plant? Yes, in a hedgerow or someone else’s field. But the decorative bramble… some people like them. They are worthwhile in late winter, their white stalks shooting upright, thorns shimmering in the frost. The really superior ones have good flowers. The deputy head gardener at Brooke Hall is trying hard to convince me: they are revered plants, she says, sometimes used in formal gardens. She also mentions that they are amongst the fastest growing plants, along with bindweed.

I spent part of yesterday and today cutting these good-looking brambles to the ground in the Wild Garden, and dug many of them out altogether where they reach out and threaten people on the footpath. I look in my encyclopaedia later and see that Rubus Cockburnianus holds an Award of Garden Merit and that ‘the flowers are followed by inedible fruit’. I will report back in January when everything else looks half dead and try to give it the benefit of the doubt. At any rate, it doesn't do any harm in this large semi-wild setting, if you don't mind being attacked when you walk past.

Gardening Clichés 1(b)

A golden hop, spreading happily over a walled corner at Brooke Hall, its acid green leaves not yet scorched by the sun, is already attempting to strangle a young magnolia and it has obliterated several shrubs at its feet. Funny that: I’m just removing a golden hop from my garden for the same reason. But on Monday I took a shooted root of it to a friend’s garden in London, to brighten up a dark corner. It will be in the company of over-run anchusa and dock and I feel confident that it will be perfect for that site, and will introduce some order, whereas at Brooke Hall it has the opposite effect. In London, under the shade of the hawthorn tree and against a city wall it will be the right plant for the right place. But in my own garden? well it really won’t do.

Spring Bulletin (6)

Red Campion in the Wild Garden.

20 April 2011

Spring Bulletin (5)

Shuttlecock ferns in the Wild Garden.

The Price of Loveliness

A hose is never far away at Brooke Hall and sprinklers are constantly in motion. Plant poison is applied with a fine water colour brush. And there is a lot of noise. Leaves are blown away or vacuumed up, edgings are kept perfectly neat, the hedges and topiary need to be kept just so. And the lawn needs to be mown quite a lot. Even when it is closed to the public, the garden is in full hair and make up.

Clipping lavender by a swimming pool can be a pleasant job, but next to a pool cleaning power jet it is not so nice. When that is turned off the drone of the strimmer floats over the warm spring air. A croak from a pheasant sounding like an old-fashioned motor car and the intriguing noise of sheep clearing their throats are a relief once the machines go on their way. As the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire writes in her page-turner The Garden at Chatsworth, ‘the garden is no longer a place for quiet contemplation’. Jobs once done by people, for instance raking, are still done by people but in a way that is quicker and noisier. I am given a lesson with the leaf blower, and equipped with earplugs. Getting it started and turning off the choke is what I’m concentrating on. It peters out pretty quickly and I can’t get it started again. So I get down on my knees and push the leaves under the hedge myself.
So much easier, and quieter.

18 April 2011

Spring Bulletin (4)

Tulip Ballerina

Spring Bulletin (3)

More rhodo's but in pink.

14 April 2011

Dead Useful

An occasional series on useful things
which we would want if only we knew
where to find them.

No.1 Barr's Bulb Dibber

Part of the charm of Marsh Hall comes from its lack of funding, poverty being the great preserver. So it's perfectly natural to find a wooden crate leaning against the wall of the stable lads' room which has been in use for 90 years. It is not treasured especially, but it has earned its keep.
Pol Roger Champagne 1921, a very useful box.

Down in the walled garden, potatoes by the name of Lady Crystal are being planted out, with the help of an old Barrs Bulb Dibber. It may be good for bulbs but it's great for potatoes, and is very quick, with one person dibbing and another placing the potato in the dibbed hole. On volunteer day, with two people tending each potato, the old-style team of gardeners is almost imaginable, with the head gardener standing upright with his full-length dibber and a more lowly person bent double, dropping potatoes into holes in the ground.

The box in which the potatoes have been chitted will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary next year.

Spring Bulletin (2)

Tulips by the glass house.

Spring Bulletin (1)

Crab apple in the walled garden.

12 April 2011

Wobbly Stripes

The garden at Brooke Hall is open to the public for one day on Sunday and since I don't have a weed killer spray certificate I am asked to mow. This is met with a snort. Mow! never done it. Don't worry, says the head gardener, we're not too concerned about stripes here. The first area is the private garden (where stripes would be encouraged one would think). The machine pulls me around box balls and pleached limes and then up a spiral mound installed by a big designer who doesn't mow. Up and up I go and get horribly stuck at the top where the mower wants to take flight. It is a modern mound with sharp angles, intended to block out the public at a slightly vulnerable spot, but it is inspired by something ancient, Celtic even. Sheep would have clambered over it. I'm surrounded by long-haired rare breed sheep but they are on the other side of the ha-ha, and here I am with the mower.

After this, a gardener who has been here for a few decades tells me that stripes do matter, particularly in the place where I'm headed next: it is a square garden with a round fountain in the middle.

Some time later, I ask the head gardener if he feels ready for visitors. He always seems so relaxed and is not in the least bit inclined to worry just because the public is arriving. All that people really mind about, he says, are neat edges and well-cut lawns.

Offensive blossoms

Magnolia, flowering cherry, rhododendron... Brooke Hall is bursting with them, in every part of the garden, and they look good. We are on an early morning inspection of the whole place on my first day and in the Wild Garden a shouty rhodendron, vivid pink with magenta ruffles, demands to be looked at. The head gardener says they're a bit random, the rhododendrons, distancing himself as people do. I like rhodo's because they remind me of Connecticut and they look well in woods and wild places. But for many they are beneath contempt. Ditto cherry (vulgar) and magnolia (suburban). The worst place to grow a magnolia has to be the suburbs. They look very at home in an arboretum or in a large garden amongst a collection of trees: the plant explorers of the nineteenth century would have brought them back from Asia to just such a place. They also look distinguished in city gardens, less impressive in towns and absolutely dreadful in the suburbs. But all three blossoms planted together! How unlikely and yet how transiently good.

A perfect situation

Yesterday I walked into a perfect job. I'd read about this kind of job in a newspaper a long time ago but it remained an idea. Could such a job really exist? Okay, it pays about £70 a week, but when one is starting from nothing that's really quite good. I should be paying them!

A trainee gardener at a large country estate in the middle of Middle England. I'll refer to it as Brooke Hall. It's about flowers, double borders, box-less parterres and private enjoyment. The walled garden encloses a swimming pool and manorial pool house. The other kind of big garden, with visitors, Victorian glass houses, vegetables and flowers for cutting within its walls, that's 'Marsh Hall', where I go on Thursdays. Another perfect situation without really being one, as we Thursday people are volunteers.

The interview process at both places involves a phone call and a Can you start next week?

If I find a catch, I'll let you know.