30 June 2011

...And Paintings that Match the Curtains

Nancy Lancaster was very good at this sort of thing, even before she joined Colefax and Fowler.

The most humiliating thing that's ever happened to me was when I was doing up Kelmarsh. I went to Christie's, where, hanging in the sale room, was a picture that I recognised. I burst out, 'I
do want that picture; it's exactly the colour I want. It matches my curtains.'

It was a Van Dyck and went to a museum.

26 June 2011

The Cutting Edge

Nick has been at Brooke Hall for most of his workable life. When he arrived he joined a large outdoor staff and the kitchen garden was the centre of operations. 'Her Ladyship' called him by his surname as did everyone else. Soon he graduated to 'that wretched boy' and now he is known as Nick. But when we take a closer look at his work (and it does bear close inspection) he is known as the 'artist'. He does a lot of mowing and blowing, as well as hedge cutting, and trimming the increasing amount of topiary. He can give yew cones a 'light cut' or he can go in heavy on rampant bamboo. But his true artistry lies with the edge, perfectly curved and breathtakingly straight.

For the curious, he uses a strimmer.

21 June 2011

In Praise of Praecox

The Head Gardener at Brooke Hall is a sunny person and is never seen in foul weather gear (or any of the dreary clothes which many gardeners are drawn to). It is my double regret that he is so good at delegating as his conversation is always thought-provoking and he'd be fun to dig next to. He does stop to talk however and sometimes he moves the hose around while I do the watering, and today he does just that.

I am administering to 10 extra large pots of agapanthus in the forecourt. These plants have been at Brooke Hall for at least sixty years, says the HG. They are evergreen and tender but survive the cold, and rally round after being chopped up. They spend their summers en plein air in Northamptonshire and they winter under glass, which is sometimes frozen on the inside. They are Agapanthus Praecox, nothing else, just as they were described no doubt in the original catalogue. This is the quintessential agapanthus plant, and it has no name except Praecox, should anyone ask.

But the best thing about this Agapanthus Praecox, says the Head Gardener, the really special thing, is the luminous blue around the base of the bud - just before it bursts open.

20 June 2011

Pin Up Pests

In the process of eating Verbascum Helen Johnson, the mullein caterpillar becomes even more attractive than its host.

19 June 2011

Appreciating... Polytunnels

They couldn't be more utilitarian, with their polythene and their plain metal curves. But the lack of angularity is appealing and the plants inside can turn them into something else altogether. Thistleton Herb Nursery in Rutland has one open weekend a year, always near midsummer and just as significant. The date is put in diaries in the depths of winter.

They have a lot of polytunnels at Thistleton. Inside is a massive variety of wildflowers and herbs, as well as vegetables. Some plants are being grown for the big shows, like Hampton Court, three weeks from now. When it is pouring outside, as it was yesterday, a polytunnel is a good place to be, the oxygen-filled air mingling with the scent of thyme or lavender or fennel. And the flower-filled tunnels look like meadows on either side of the black plastic runway.

17 June 2011

Lady Lathyrus

Three Ways with Sweet Peas

The new traditional, on hazel poles.

Artless mug arrangement.

Grown under glass, the scent is trapped.

16 June 2011

'It must be lovely working here'

It is lovely but it is lovelier with visitors to remind you. I have been pruning wisteria at Brooke Hall this afternoon, a pleasant enough sunny-with-showers day, standing on the top rung of a stout Japanese ladder. I survey the place as I count five to six buds then snip.

Houses like Brooke Hall were built for entertaining and they do need people. An empty Pleasure Garden is... a list of jobs. Today I am surrounded by Penelope roses and Lady's Mantle so questions are easy, and visitors almost always want to talk. Several say, 'That's a job and a half!' and I agree. There are so many wisteria and this one is not small. Then follows the inevitable 'It's like the Forth Bridge...' Boom boom.

Some professional gardeners are bored to death by visitors with their comments and questions and they put on an 'I'm so busy' air, to put people off. But those walking around, and bringing the garden to life, want to believe in the fable of the garden and the house, who used to live there and what they used to do. The visitors understand that you don't need to go fox hunting four times a week and order your rugs in Paris to take home some of the glamour. And anybody can garden in pearls.

Before and after (top).

13 June 2011

Covetable Compost

Turn up the heat this season with frequently turned compost. The heaps at Marsh Hall are always hot. Comfortingly low-tech, they are simply put together from wood offcuts, carpet and rotting matter. Get the look with a Persian rug and some wildlife; brighten up neutrals with cut flowers, just this side of dead.

Red carpet treatment for a grass snake.

12 June 2011

Snakes with Peter

People who are afraid of snakes should approach a fire heap with caution. Compost enthusiasts are busy stirring elsewhere and a fire heap, with its carpet of insulation and its deep rotting bed can be very attractive to a single snake. A single snake quickly becomes a nest of snakes however. Happily at Marsh Hall we like to find all kinds of living creatures, between the lifting of the carpet and the emptying of the bucket therein. As long as they're not baby rats...

We uncover one of these snake nests in the fire heap, a shady place behind the walled garden. As one grass snake slithers away, another waits patiently to be photographed.* Peter has information to impart. This snake has just laid eggs, or is about to. It is a female: they are bigger than males. She may have laid up to 40 eggs and since females come together to lay in the same place, this heap could have 1000 eggs in it. They have thick leathery shells and the hatchlings emerge in the autumn. What a beautifully engineered creature she is. Grass snakes are the largest reptiles in the UK... how does Peter have all this grass snake information at his fingertips? 'I saw a programme about them on telly last night,' he says, rather crushingly.

*One way of telling an adder from a grass snake is that the latter has a friendly round pupil, while a venomous snake has a vertical pupil, like a Disney snake. This one isn't giving much away. When they are about to shed, the eyes can be covered with a blue film and the snake becomes lethargic, which is fortunate for the reporter of snakes.

08 June 2011

No Sob Stories Please

A sad ending should not be left hanging about and we're pleased to note that the news from Norfolk is far from sad. The vineries at Holkham Hall walled garden have been resurrected, with thanks to English Heritage, and the whole place is about a third of the way through a restoration project. It is unlikely to be 'restored to its former glory' as the saying goes, since it is not 1911 and the garden is not a museum. But there are plans for a different kind of glory and it may be relevant once more. Head gardener Tim Marshall wants to keep the tropical plants left behind by the nursery for instance, to create a new ornamental garden. 'They give such a good atmosphere,' he says. 'I want it to be a place to meander and kind of chill out.'
Bring on the bagpipes.

The new-look vinery and top, the fig house within.

The peach house.

The extraordinary wall.

07 June 2011

News from Norfolk

The walled garden at Holkham Hall

Everything is big. The walls enclosing the six and a half acres are big, and tall, and really very long. The vineries and sunken greenhouses, ditto. It's quite a walk from the house, a quarter of a mile, and the area is separated behind a ha-ha and the kind of gate which would look more at home in a churchyard.

On display is an old photograph of a man in a kilt playing the bagpipes, who is the former head gardener. The people at Holkham say this about him:

'Donald Paterson became head gardener around 1910. In his time at Holkham he saw his gardeners twice go off to war, the upheaval of World War II with its 'Dig for Victory' campaign and the forced economies that followed, all before his death in 1949.'

The Holkham estate was on its knees by the 1950s, with massive debts owed, following the deaths of the third and fourth earls within ten years. In the 1960s the walled garden became a nursery and in 2005 it became empty.

06 June 2011

More Science with Peter

A Victorian dog bone.

When the polymath Peter talked us through devil's toenails and broken clay pipes a few weeks ago, it got the mind ticking over. Why is there so much pottery in our back gardens? A midden, or dump, behind a row of cottages would have been as usual as a communal water pipe or laundry. But that only accounts for a concentration of willow pattern (and fish paste bottles, and bits of bedsteads) in a small area. Most of us have broken china and bones scattered around and they're old if not ancient.

While weeding through beans in the walled garden at Marsh Hall the other day, Sharron found a femur bone, almost certainly from a dog. Peter: 'This bone is very light and porous. The holes are bigger at the ends because water has been leaching phosphates from it. It's light because it's been doing good, for the soil.'

And broken plates? 'People believed that the 'bone' in bone china would have a similar effect,' says Peter. 'But pottery has been calcified in the kiln, so it doesn't do any good at all. And it doesn't break down: it will be here for the duration, until the Second Coming.' Peter is singing with his choir in the Vatican this week – I'll see if he has any information on this when he gets back.

05 June 2011

Top Tips from an Under Gardener

1 Never walk backwards.
2 If you must pass judgement on a plant, let it be positive.
3 Conversely, if a plant is about to be dug out, don't say 'But I like that one.'
4 On encountering the garden owner, limit your conversation to 'Yes' 'No' and 'I'm so sorry.'

03 June 2011

Bird Gardening

At Marsh Hall today, thinning beetroot mainly. The beds in the walled garden are becoming more full, with diagonals of cutting flowers looking confident (cerinthe, sweet william) or a bit lost (cosmos - it will happen). And there are rows of vegetables which need their first thinning. 'You could let the birds do that,' Sharron says. She's right, and I'm not thinning too much so the birds can do their own bit of editing too.

Birds as gardeners are not as interested in straight lines as people are and they tend to focus on one area, which can spoil the final effect. Many people put up netting, fruit cages or a rustic cloche just to stop the birds from interfering. But sometimes a rogue flower pops up, which may have had something to do with a bird, and it looks perfect. This wild lily is growing amongst trees just beyond a sign that says No Entry, at Marsh Hall. So, nobody sees it except the gardeners and volunteers. Great! But speaking as a human, I just wish that whatever wild thing put it there could have dotted a few more around.

Appreciating Bedding Part 2

Okay, so, we're not there yet. But the house with the yellow trim in Lyddington is on schedule planting-out-wise, and we can only hope that the beds start to sing by midsummer.