29 September 2011

Garden Clichés No.3

The Outdoor 'Room'
The inverted commas are a problem. The garden 'room' is no longer a 'new' idea and nobody will be upset if we call an enclosed outdoor space a Room. The concept has been around since before th Alhambra and it is a lovely concept, after all. Like a walled garden but less large, enclosure can tame a space and keep out unpleasant things. If there is a tree in it, or on the other side of it, right up close to the hedge or wall, it can be as unobtrusive but just as useful as a standard lamp. Its canopy meanwhile forms a kind of 'ceiling' and a lawn, if edged neatly, is a 'fitted carpet'. Do sit down and relax.

On my first day at Brooke Hall back in April I had to stop and stare, in a part of the garden which is really a passing-through place. The combination of wall on one side, tall hedge on the other, grass underfoot and some leaves overhead gave it a stillness, with auditorium acoustics. The garden is like a theatre just here, with the wings on either side. Enter stage left, exit stage right, and on to the next thing.

The magnolia (above) is in perfect shelter against a yew hedge, its branches floating laterally above the top of it. On the other side of the theatre-like space is an upright gingko, by the old brick wall. On the other side of the yew, by the magnolia, a cherry (further down) peeks over. Both trees have winding, Chinese-looking branches which are held clear above the very straight lines of the hedge. It's a good contrast for any tree.

It is helpful of course if the tree peeking over or even growing through a neatly trimmed hedge is a special one like Cornus Kousa (above and top). The bracts are refreshing in late spring after the blossom on the other trees has blown away and autumn brings knobbly red fruit.

The Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonica, above) is also a good nosy neighbour, hanging over a wall, and it sends out big wafts of caramelising sugar, as its leaves begin to turn pale orange.

Set in a corner, the hedge seems to be hugging the cherry (above) and the Katsura (below). It's very cosy.

23 September 2011

Science with a Slightly Reluctant Peter

Science, maths and logic can be bewildering. And then it's difficult to know whether one's remarks will take the conversation further, or bring it to a complete halt. I've been asking Peter for quite a while now why certain things smell like lemon, when they have nothing to do with lemons. For instance lemon verbena, lemon geranium (above), and the utterly pointless but quite-nice-smelling lemon balm.
I can see that Peter is trying his best. We are still working in the potato corner of the walled garden. 'Plants produce scent for attraction as well as defence. The lemon-smelling plants all share the essential oil limonene.'
But they're not lemons, I say.
'Why do you find that surprising?' he asks, incredulously. 'Why is it surprising to call something with lemon in it, lemon? If you use the word red for describing the property of a plant, that's not surprising. We are simply describing the red property that disparate plants share from a human point of view. The colour red,' he says, very slowly and emphatically, 'Is... just... a... gene. As is a particular scent.'
I don't think that this line of enquiry is really holding Peter's attention, and he busies himself with the lifting of potatoes. We speak of related things.
Scents which are repellant to insects may be attractive to humans, for example. The essential oil geraniol is good in soaps, 'But when you eat it, it's absolutely vile!' Lemon sorbet is very good as an amuse bouche but lemon verbena sorbet is even better.

A couple of weeks later and I have prepared the killer question.
'What makes a lemon a lemon?'
'The same thing that makes a tomato a tomato.'
End of.

Next time in Science with Peter
Where does all the manure go?

21 September 2011

Ye Gods

Take a large Queen Anne house, in its own park. Add a paved forecourt by the side, with views over said park, designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe. Add 12 giant yew cones dotted around. Amongst the clipped geometry are four sharp squares of yew and in the centre of each, a classical god perching decorously on a plinth. Surrounded by white Iceberg roses and framed by the yew, the lead figures are something you would not be at all surprised to see, or even particularly notice, while passing by on the way to tea and cake.

BUT take away the roses and put in their place some long wavy grass: Calimogostis Karl Foerster. The scene is no longer half-dead and not nearly as respectable. The grasses wave about, they glint in the sunshine, and the gods seem to run through them. You suddenly notice that they are not from around here.

The calimogostis changes colour depending on the light, and it is just the right height above the yew, a couple of feet, to create a small picture of freedom and abandon around each god. Loose within, but rigid without. Because a couple of feet away from the grassy savannah is the half-wall of yew and the leaping about comes to an end.

At eight o'clock on a September morning the grass looks incredibly golden; a month earlier it was purple. It's not boring grass - it's a simple and clever way of making a very formal area come alive. The head gardener at Brooke Hall has had some nice things said about him in the gardening press, in the polite way that they have. But I say: he's bloody good.

20 September 2011

The Reject Shop

There are no plants of my own on this blog, no pictures which say 'Look what I've grown!'. Other people's plants are so much more interesting. I work in the park and gardens of two country estates, close to one another in the middle of England. One has a triangular walled kitchen garden which has been revived over the last decade with the help of volunteers. The other has no volunteers and no kitchen garden. The plot still exists, with its crumbling forcing houses and wild-looking fruit trees but it is derelict and a closed book.

Some of the Thursday volunteers in the walled garden at Marsh Hall order veg boxes, which are put together on the same day. We are at the top of the food chain. We do not need an allotment, we do not pay luxury veg box prices, and we may have had a hand in growing the food which we later buy, for a nominal fee. But the best part is, the produce in the volunteers' boxes does not conform to supermarket standards. Sometimes it doesn't even look right in the visitors' shop.

So, as well as the beautiful and the heritage, like the tomatoes below, we get to take home damsons (above) which on close inspection are slightly squashed, and parsnips (top) which haven't come out as one might have hoped.

The damsons are simmered into a compote as soon as they get home, and with some judicious chopping and intricate scrubbing the parsnips will make somebody a lovely soup, possibly with croutons.

Not all of the damsons (below) make it into the veg boxes, but these come highly commended in the 'Look at my beautiful compost heap' category.

16 September 2011

The Cluck Stops Here

The first of an occasional series on chickens.
We had lunch outside in the stable yard at Marsh Hall yesterday, since it was too sunny to waste an hour sitting in the dark and slightly cold tack room. Two upturned crates made a fine table. We are talking about chickens and Annie mentions that a college outside Northampton offers a short course on the wringing of a chicken's neck. Fran, who is the most tranquil of the Thursday volunteer gardeners, is a chicken trader. 'I get my husband to wring their necks now,' she says wistfully. 'I'm not as strong as I used to be.' 

Annie has recently taken delivery of a couple of Liver Birds from Fran (some chickens from Liverpool). They are not rescued battery hens but rescued free range chickens. Beg pardon? They need to be rescued, Fran explains, because they live very close together, often inside. This is not the fault of the mean old farmer. 'Bully hens' will gang up and block the doorway so the other chickens can't get out. When the hens who do make it outside want to get back in to lay, their path is blocked by the same.

Fran talks of her 'middle aged' hens who want to go to bed early. They sit by disapprovingly, bitching about the younger ones who rush around the field 'clubbing' and having as much fun as possible before being forced inside. Not being a chicken person I am struck by the readiness of chicken folk to attribute their birds with human qualities. The older hens stand around in their curlers and hair nets, allegedly. And it is not difficult to imagine them spoiling things for the young free range chickens, like the militant mothers at the school gates, puffing away on their fags and blowing smoke into the faces of the reception class as they skip by.

So, where can a person buy proper free range eggs these days? 'Well, I have plenty,' says Fran, slightly amazed at the question. And there you have it: you don't buy free range eggs from a supermarket, obviously - you keep chickens. Or even better, make friends with somebody whose chickens roam freely and lay eggs rather too often.

14 September 2011

Pantheon Plants

Film critics and historians love to compile lists of the top ten movies ever, inevitably with Citizen Kane at number one. Or at least this was the case in the 1980s when I was studying film among other things. Now one finds oneself making lists of plants. As always, the critics' top ten is never going to be a list of inexplicable personal favourites but each must have a sensible weightiness to earn its place. Hardy geraniums - occasionally exciting, always hardworking - they are in the pantheon. Hydrangeas are contenders for the top three because they have so much going on and there really is something for everyone. They are varied in leaf shape, habit, colour - some people like unearthly blue, others prefer cooking apple green. And within a plant, the fertile and infertile bracts do their bit for texture. Side-by-side branches of one of the best, Hydrangea quercifolia, or oak-leaved hydrangea (shown above and below) look as though they could belong to different plants. Good leaf colour in autumn to follow.

If the oak-leaved variety is too rangey and unpredictable, Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle (shown here in deep focus) cannot be argued with. So accomplished it is almost a bit of a yawn, and with a ridiculously long playing time: it could be the Citizen Kane of plants.

09 September 2011

The Kelmarsh Globe

The identity of the authoress was revealed in the August-September number of 'The Globe' and it is now clear that Marsh Hall in Northamptonshire is in fact Kelmarsh Hall. It is no secret of course that Kelmarsh is a pretty special place, and she doesn't care who knows it.

Myths and Clichés Continued: The Potato

The wild areas in the walled garden at Marsh Hall have been receding as we push forward, year by year. It is often said that potatoes should form the first line of attack on uncultivated land. But, as Sharron says, potatoes do not clear the ground - gardeners do, and even then the ground is not perfectly cleared. Yesterday she pulled up plenty of bindweed root along with the specimen above (weighing just under a kilo).  Sharron is the ideal volunteer on Thursdays because she knows what's she's doing, which cannot be said of everybody. Harvesting versus spearing.

In clearing the ground this way, the gardener forks it over, digs in muck, and later digs deep holes in which to drop the seed potatoes. Then comes the earthing up. This regular attention forces the gardener (not the potato) to keep on top of the weeding, and the disturbance of the soil naturally impedes the weeds' progress. While harvesting, the ground is forked over again, leading to much improved soil and a few barrows of spuds.

Mr Potato Head is available for ground clearance and odd jobs.

06 September 2011

Crazy Paving 1

The most sought after paving for outdoors is often the most impractical. York stone, which looks so good glistening in the rain along the squares and crescents of Edinburgh, is slippery when wet (and it's almost always wet). Ditto brick, which is mossy in an English summer before falling to bits in the winter.
The most beautiful paving is arguably cobbled, and even better when it is impossible to walk on.

The Spanish courtyard above connects the house door to the street door. It would not be advisable to ever leave home in a hurry, particularly with bare feet.

Crazy Paving 2

Allegedly, crazy paving was something that the Romans did. The Arts and Crafts folk were also keen, though it is doubtful whether they called it 'crazy'. Like many self-respecting English gardens, Brooke Hall in Northamptonshire has traces of Arts and Crafts influence, in its courtyards. A sensible path leads a person from A to B, correct me if I'm wrong. A path with a warning sign (below) is a sublime example of the beautiful and not at all useful.

01 September 2011

Season's Greetings

The cyclamen in the Wild Garden at Brooke Hall have been flowering for a couple of weeks now. On returning from holiday in the arid south it was a bit of a shock to see them. They are only doing what they are programmed to do but there is something disconcerting about cyclamen in August.

A friend of mine who is a 'mag hag' (one who devotes her life to the glossy magazine industry) used to live in a little flat in Kennington, South London, in which everything was white. At Christmas she had five small pots lined up in front of a white framed mirror, balanced on a tiny white mantle and in each pot, springing primly from its bed of moss, was a white cyclamen. Plus fairy lights. Because of her I always associate them with the dark days indoors when the choice is - hyacinth or cyclamen, cyclamen or hyacinth.

A cyclamen in August is like a memento mori, except that instead of saying 'remember you will die', the message is 'remember it will be Christmas'.