29 May 2011

The Millennium Never Happened

In Cottesbrooke, Northamptonshire.

The village hall was put up in 1953 to honour the Queen and she is honoured still. Today the village gardens were open to the public. At the bottom of the map was printed a courteous and slightly magisterial plea, 'Please be kind enough to return your ticket with a note of which garden has given you the most pleasure.'

I can report that the tea inside the hall was particularly good, since it was poured from a giant stainless steel teapot. The meringues, according to my companion, were 'flipping historic.'

27 May 2011

When it Works it Works

Baby's Tears in London W8.

26 May 2011

What would Miss Jekyll think?

On Tuesday I attended a talk in Kensington held by some serious gardening people, some of whom may have wished to be elsewhere. The topic - whither garden design? - attracted many well-groomed ladies of a certain age, fresh from the Chelsea Flower Show, and a few young people. The conversation between two ladies nearby was very engrossing, 'He was an anti-sexual. He was probably a virgin when he died...' but was rudely interrupted by the arrival of the speakers. A full five minutes after the introductions and several small smatterings of applause, Tim Richardson the journalist and co-chair suggested that we might congratulate Cleve West, who was sitting on a metal bistro chair politely waiting to be questioned about the proposed topic. He had won Best in Show at Chelsea earlier that day. Enthusiastic clapping.

Noel Kingsbury helped to steer Dan Pearson and Andy Sturgeon through a discussion on the current appetite for naturalistic drifts and apparent rejection of form and was this not heretical to the arts and crafts tradition? Whenever the conversation became more amorphous, like a Missouri meadow, Tim Richardson would lean in and cry 'But what would Miss Jekyll say?'

Cleve West's response to this badgering from Miss Jekyll (via Mr Richardson) was to talk about James Alexander-Sinclair. He has been known to chuck pots over his shoulder and plant them - naturalistically - wherever they land. This can be a difficult thing to do. And no, madam, you do not move each pot just a little to the left or slightly to the right if it hasn't landed in quite the right place.

25 May 2011

News from Chelsea

Via Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire.

In a village hall, down a dirt road, round the back of Main Street, Sue Kirk teaches a raggle taggle bunch of people how to weave with willow. I am one of them. Most people do it because they enjoy the amazingly soothing experience but also because they want to make fencing to keep the chickens out, or to provide their sweet peas with an obelisk which is not made of bamboo. Sue is an artist as well as a practical person and when she is not making bespoke shapes for sculpture gardens she sells baskets at Oundle Market. One day Bunny Guinness, the radio-friendly garden designer, opened a special event at the market and came over to Sue’s stall to buy a basket. ‘Do you want to do Chelsea?’ she asked, a bit casually. On Sunday Sue was serenely teaching people how to make garden supports in the village hall, having spent two weeks at Chelsea, weaving day and night. The results can be seen, surrounded by cabbages and roses in Bunny Guinness’ Kitchen Garden which took silver-gilt at Chelsea. As Bunny says, willow can look ‘slightly rustic and quite modern, in a way.’ You can grow it, cut it, use it and re-do it when it wears out. Sue is ambivalent about all the publicity. ‘I hope I don’t get too much work,’ she says. ‘I did it to pay for the loft extension.’

19 May 2011

Appreciating... Bedding

Part One
Amongst the Farrow and Ball-trimmed homes of Lyddington, in Rutland, one house stands alone. The windowsills and doors are immaculate in defiant yellow and the lawn, well that's beautifully presented too. But the beds along the concrete path are just heaving with expectation. They're bare and have been for months. By the time of the village open gardens on June 4 and 5 they are guaranteed to be singing, having waited sensibly for the last chance of frost. But with what? Watch this space.

17 May 2011

The Sensation of Purple

One of the best things about my school besides the roast potatoes was the summer uniform. We were allowed to wear any dress of our choosing, as long as it was purple, or white and purple. Not a first choice colour perhaps, but it was an invitation to self-expression, in Putney.

Sometimes girls were banned from wearing a perfectly good dress which happened to be puce. Or mauve, or violet or chartreuse. In the daily debate at register the purple police did manage at least to open our eyes to the possibilities of colour. A frock which seemed purple(ish) at home became suddenly very blue when lined up with other summer dresses in assembly. A bit like the iris, above.

My cool cotton pinafore from Laura Ashley (when Laura Ashley was still relevant of course) was a madras check, the colour of Patty's Plum poppy.

And geranium Mrs Kendall Clark.

It may have raised an eyebrow, but from a distance the effect of the two colours together was purple enough.

It would be churlish to try to ignore the dominant colour of Spring, so I'm really trying to love pure purple. It does look better in a garden than in a pre-fab hut.

Allium Purple Sensation.

13 May 2011

Science with Peter

From the mists of time
(mist courtesy of the new polytunnel)

In the walled garden at Marsh Hall the potatoes are coming along. Peter is earthing them up with a rather fancy hoe brought from home. The ridges are so perpendicular they are almost 'exhibition style', which may well have been a requirement from the head gardener here at one time. In this latter-day setting, the regimented rows have the effect of pulling the whole place together.

Peter comes over with part of an old clay pipe. It is small and decorated and well, nothing special in an old garden... Peter is a doctor of science I should say and has a rare skill of disguising proper scientific information as trivia. A good way to interest the lay person who is utterly resistant to science: I feel some archeology coming on.

Next he produces a fossil of a sea shell. That's nice. Hang on - a what?
The pipe is a piece of typical debris from 150 years ago but the shell is from 150 MILLION years ago, and we are in the middle of the Midlands, in the most landlocked part of England. 'Oh yes,' he says airily. 'This was all under the sea, which is why we're digging into pebble beds over there.'

More Science with Peter next week.

Magic Beans

Yin-Yang, a kidney bean from Thomas Etty.

If my son went to market with an old cow and came back with some of these beans, I'd be glad, because they're magical as well as heritage. There was much ooh-ing and aah-ing in the potting shed this afternoon as my friend Annie and I dropped the shiny soothing beans into 9cm pots. She described them as 'cathartic' which is not too far fetched, not at all.

District Nurse, a climbing French bean.

10 May 2011


Ragged Robin and friends.

On a visit to Highgrove last year it was impossible not to become aware of a mass of Creeping Buttercup, living purposefully and without shame under a tree. One felt that a point was being made. As with the Mutton Renaissance Campaign and any number of worthy causes, the buttercup clearly has been promoted by HRH, in his own garden, and we have been asked to take note. Wiggly Wigglers have a selection of wildflowers in their catalogue, and a single plant of Ragged Robin sells for £3.50. What then is a buttercup worth to most people? Absolutely nothing, in fact minus nothing. It needs our support in other places. I’m pleased to report then that in the Wild Garden at Brooke Hall pink robins and yellow buttercups rub shoulders happily, and they look just fine. NQOTD is no longer said by PLU when it comes to weedy wildflowers. If it ever was.

*a translation for 21st century people:

Not Quite Our Type, Darling

People Like Us.

Head Gardener's Top Tips

1 Always rake over your footsteps in a flower or vegetable bed, especially if your garden is open to the public.

2 When filling up a wheelbarrow, fill it with the heaviest part over the wheel as the wheel will take most of the weight, not your arms and back.

3 Work in the exact spot where you are told, to prevent hours of searching for each other on a country estate where a good phone signal cannot be relied upon.

4 Never complain about prickles, or any kind of physical discomfort caused by gardening.

Traffic Report



Sometime during the day.

The pleasures of starting work at 7.30am are many and varied but I’m often in too much of a hurry to appreciate all the dawn activity. As I rush down the single lane track with five gates leading to Brooke Hall I am hopeful that all the gates will be open. Occasionally they are not and it is then regrettable but too late to allow extra time for the journey. Yesterday on my way home I knew the gate would be shut because it had been that morning. Before I got there I noticed that a flock of sheep had just been shorn, and were very pink and raw looking, some sporting shaving cuts. In the din of bleating they sounded distressed and looked rather pathetic, like llamas with short necks. In the next field along, the one with the road, the gate was shut and the sheep inside were angry. They didn’t move away when I opened the gate but got ready to charge and some got through, rushing toward their chums in a show of support. There was much shouting and beating back and, safe in the driving seat once more I did expect them to do what sheep normally do and run away. But these were militant sheep and they stood their ground, only moving off the road very grudgingly after giving me a long hard stare. The shorn sheep were the ones suffering an identity crisis yet the hot woolly ones were behaving like humans. It was a relief to turn on to an A road, I don’t mind saying.

06 May 2011

Appreciating... Corrugated Iron

(and its relations)

Its demise as a material for smart people's outbuildings has been noted (Ancient Industries September 08) but for the non-smart, corrugated iron is still highly regarded. Here are some views of the Little Bowden allotments, near Market Harborough.

A backdrop for brassicas...

A device for preventing the barbecue from blowing away...

Useful comfrey, useful corrugated...

Undoubtedly useful...

Finally, compost bays. (Would Monty approve?)

05 May 2011

Summer predictions

Can't wait that long?
Simply use a heated Victorian glasshouse


Sweet peas

Passion flower

More Dash than Cash

Six key looks from the Potting Shed.

Beryl makes sense, but Hank and Marlene?

A change is as good as a holiday, or something, and I am back at Marsh Hall sowing behind brick and under glass. Eight trays of lettuce, forty pots of corn, forty pots of french beans... it's heaven, despite the ravishing day taking place outside.