28 November 2011

'A Cottagey Stately Home Kind of Feel'

An interesting way of seeing a longed-for place for the first time is ten minutes before closing, with a car full of stuff to unload and very little daylight. The atmosphere of Great Dixter, where I spent the weekend with Folk at Home selling our functional and fancy goods, was pretty powerful at dusk and in the dark, when the front door is normally closed. After the manicured lawns of Northamptonshire the feeling was the opposite of solemn, with a purple-haired youth throwing grass seed around in the twilight.  I'd been lulled already into a holiday mood by the weatherboard cottages of Rye and as I arrived in East Sussex the radio switched automatically to a French station and I knew I was somewhere near the Channel.

The garden at Great Dixter was originally designed by Christopher Lloyd's father with Edward Lutyens in a grand cottage style, and it is rarefied but friendly. With its Great Hall and Yeoman's Hall the house is Medieval and large but feels more like a rectory. From the garden entrance it looks almost like a tall bungalow... There was a very tantalising kitchen with antique fridge and oven from which we were forbidden, but the whole place was ridiculously charming. No gilt or coronets but an anti-witch symbol carved into the massive fireplace, simple medievalist light fittings and hundred-year-old cobwebs high up in the beams, which no Cobweb Lad could have reached in the days of servants even if he were standing at the top of a specially-made ladder.

The bottom of the roof of one of the outbuildings was level with my waist, with space inside to stand up and read the educational notices, having crawled in on hands and knees. The shop (above) is one of the most perfect I've ever seen, whatever goods happen to be on sale there, functional or fancy.

25 November 2011

What to do in Winter with...

... Gunnera
Cut down a grove of gunnera with a machete. Place the leaves over the crowns like umbrellas, to protect them from frost and slice off the stalks to use as weights, holding the umbrella-leaves down. Stout gloves recommended to protect against gunnera spines and stout boots for the long knife.

24 November 2011

What to do in Winter with...

First take the precaution of planting them into large plastic containers with rope handles, and place these into more picturesque pots. At the end of the season be sure to use a sack trolley to take the hoisted out plants to a trailer. Drive to glasshouse(s).

20 November 2011

Peter's Trail of Tears

It has a sad story and an evocative name. It is also a 'heritage' bean so the climber Cherokee Trail of Tears is cherished now in a way that the Cherokee Nation never were during the forced exodus from their homelands, taking the black bean with them.  But like the Native Americans, the bean survived - just.

Peter is a custodian of heritage seeds at Garden Organic and had his original beans from there, but they have become more mainstream and are readily available these days. There is a large pile of them in his garage, surrounded by a ridiculous amount of preserves - so envious - plus a harpsichord. He has just picked the last ones. Being a scientist there is nothing random about this pile of beans. It is a small part of a much greater yield of about 7000 beans and they have been weighed, counted and had scientific thoughts applied. Each Cherokee Trail of Tears plant (above and top) has produced on average 205 beans, with 36 pods per plant. For storing and cooking it's a good prolific bean. However, there is an irregularity which occurs in 10% of them and they are white. 

It is an impurity, a throwback, in other words a sport. 'And it's a damn sight more interesting,' says Peter, than the original purpley-black bean. Each plant from this white sport has yielded about 232 beans (that's almost 30 more per plant than the original - do keep up). Peter has called them White Tears (above and below). Each bean is heavier in weight, and although there are the same amount of beans per pod, there are more pods per plant, so the beans weigh in at about 25% more than the Trail of Tears.

 Both plants produce between three and ten shoots near the base so they are more vigorous and bushy than other heritage varieties which can be notoriously precious and mean. Attractive as the Sezma Zebra is (below) it only produces one vine and wouldn't feed many. The weight of beans per plant is a quarter of that of White Tears.

So Peter is very excited about this sport and has been known to give away some of the white beans for Christmas. However... there is an even more exciting experiment taking place and that is the bean which Peter calls Black Tears. 'There is a spontaneous production of black beans FROM THE WHITE BEANS!' he says. 'This I think is truly amazing.' This double throwback takes place 5-10% of the time and grows in the same way as White Tears but is slightly less prolific.

Clearly, there is a lot more information to be had from Peter on the perplexing mechanism involving recessive and non-recessive genes. Can it wait? Method and Observation I always quite enjoyed at school but Conclusion, well. The results from the latest sport Black Tears are still being concluded, so Conclusion itself might have to wait. An extension please.

16 November 2011

What to do in Winter with...

...One's statuary (a)
 If susceptible to frost, it could be tied up in an all-weather duvet.

What to do in Winter with...

...One's statuary (b)
 Allow it to provide a service for sheltering ladybirds, etc.

12 November 2011

Ode to Uppingham Market

It's a good place to be on a Friday, even in the freezing fog. Its name is fitting: 'the town which is up'. The market square is the highest point of the hill that Uppingham sits atop and there is a devilish little alley connecting the hill and its wind directly to my stall. Yesterday, on the eleventh of the eleventh in the year eleven, there was nowhere I would rather have been. My 'pitch' is next to the Church in the corner of the square, and the bells rang out and the market place fell silent. People had gathered round the church entrance and they looked up at the steeple or down at the ground. It felt disrespectful even to look sideways. During the day aged soldiers walked about in their regalia and there was no one without a poppy.

Although I am not at the front of the market with the essentials (cut flowers and fruit) I have passing trade en route to the Post Office, Church and pub. There is also a barber and a Chinese takeaway, so all the world is here. All the people, often delightful, sometimes mad and occasionally grumpy are here too. A woman dressed in tweeds looks through my hand-printed cards, which she wants to buy, before fiddling with my oiltreated oak nail brush from Sweden, which attracts attention every week. 'This is a lovely nail brush,' she says. 'I'll just find my other half.' My heart sinks. Husbands are fine on their own but are not persuadable when accompanied by wives.
The browsing woman pulls a similarly be-tweeded man over, amongst protests of 'Don't be ridiculous!'
They stop and she points. 'Not even as a present for you?'
'No! don't be ridiculous! How much is it? That's ridiculous!'
'But you normally spend £4 on a plastic nail brush... '
'You're being ridiculous!' he shouts before hurrying away. She follows him and later they pass by again, still arguing.
A thick fog descends on the square up on the hill, and it's not even one o'clock in the afternoon.

10 November 2011

Keep Britain Tidy

Gardening can be like housework and for those of a tidy bent, this is a frantically busy time of year. Leaves must be removed from pathways, and they must be removed from steps. Yesterday I managed to turn the 'wild garden' at Brooke Hall into a kind of sitting room, and very tidy it was too. In a garden of 13 acres it would be demented to get over-concerned about tidiness in all areas, but still the leaves must be dealt with. It's really a matter of 'keeping the leaves on the move' as the head gardener puts it, and not allowing their accumulation to kill whatever is trying to survive underneath. The best way to do this is by blowing them away. Hoovering does happen, but in smaller parts of the garden. Even then it feels like a ludicrous thing to do, vacuuming around box parterres, underneath pleached limes which are surrounded by beech hedges. Whose insane planting plan was this? Didn't they think about all the leaves?

In order to master the fine art of blowing, certain rules must be observed. Never make a leaf pile. We don't use rakes, and we don't pick up piles of leaves either. Leaves must be blown to an appropriate place, either under bushes, or out into a neighbouring field. Pushing leaves under dense or unwieldy shrubs like the gunnera above, can feel like sweeping dust under the carpet. Too much volume, too little cover. Flower beds with hardy perennials in them are not much good for smothering either. If blowing into an adjacent field it is important to blow carefully over the top of whatever leaves are already there, spreading all the leaves out in a considerate manner. Piles of leaves would act like parting waves when approached by a machine. Evenly spread leaves on the other hand can be crunched into instant mulch by a ride-on mower. Underneath the many trees at Brooke Hall are circles of brown, which comprise bite-sized leaves ready for the breaking down process. 

It's a feast for worms. Sometimes, while pushing debris around, bigger leaves with pointy ends can stick determinedly into the ground. Despite the use of engine-powered equipment from Germany which I have been trained to operate at full throttle, it's a happy thought that the leaf is already being pulled quite a long way underground, and that there is an earthworm at the other end, holding on tight.

08 November 2011

Appreciating... Berberis & Co

Some plants have more of a point in Autumn
 Autumn has this effect: berberis pretends to be a bit more friendly...

... And pampas grass gives elegance a try, looking refreshingly cool amidst the red and yellow chaos.

03 November 2011

A Classic Weepie

The leaves of beech, and the trunk and bark of beech, are quietly beautiful for much of the year. It takes a while to come alive in spring, which is only really noticeable in beech hedges and topiary, still brown and crinkly when everything else has gone green. The late canopy in a beech wood suits bluebells just fine of course. At this time of year in the Wild Garden at Brooke Hall the acer and sorbus have gone a reliably mad red and supernatural orange-pink. But the beech sports every autumn colour, on one tree. When the sun shines horizontally across a cathedral-like beech it looks flood-lit. And a weeping cathedral-like beech (above) well, it's value-added, all year round.

For the perpetually confused: Beech left, hornbeam right. It's textural.

This beech column stands with another, beside a group of equally blameless yew columns. They bring a bit of structure to the front (or is it back?) door. But now, for a short time, it's discreetly wigging out.

01 November 2011

A Heated Debate

Most people love or hate a bonfire. It's unusual to quite like them. Some people aren't allowed them (Londoners, on health grounds). Others can only have them if they are land-rich (people from Connecticut need at least an acre of land, to protect the neighbours). But we country bumpkins in Middle England can muddle along how we like. Science with Peter has set up camp over at the Guardian and Observer allotment blog this week, and the theme is fire heaps, or bonfires. The Guardian likes a good row, so do join in. Just check for hedgehogs first.