30 January 2012

The Punkette of Flower Decorating

The Surprising Life of Constance Spry has an apt title and is a heavenly read. For some reason Constance Spry's name today implies 'high-society mimsiness' as Terence Conran so neatly and bitterly put it. Actually, her decorations (never arrangements) were totally unconventional, flying in the face of the 'sugar-tong manners' which she herself despised. Mixing weeds and strange vegetables with very exotic and rarefied flowers, her decorations spilled horizontally off a meat plate or were massively vertical, dominating a grand-scale room. Her theatrical male friends were an influence and she went for drama in a big way.

One of Spry's most notorious as well as favourite choices of plant material was the decorative curly kale (photographed above in 1937). I saw some on a friend's beautiful allotment in Brixworth this morning and felt compelled to take it home and have a Julie and Julia moment. It took all of several seconds but still looks 'interesting' and certainly has potential. It's a nice idea, that the DIY ethos behind punk was applied to something as 'mimsy' as flower decorating 75 years ago.

26 January 2012

Nick's Interesting Food

Nick at Brooke Hall likes his food soft and refined; in other words, easy to chew and highly processed. Today's lunch was mainly circles and rectangles of brown and white, quite eye-catching. As we were eating in the Mess Room* we were talking about some pots of hellebores, newly arrived and sitting in a group just outside the shed. The head gardener mentions in passing that they are toxic as is the whole ranunculus family.

'Are buttercups poisonous?' asks Nick. 'I've eaten them. The leaves are quite bitter.'
'Eaten?' we both say.
Nick reveals in his nonchalant way that he has eaten his way around the whole garden at Brooke Hall.
'Why?' we both say.
'I was just curious,' he explains with continued nonchalance. 'I wanted to know what everything tasted like. I were always putting things in my mouth and chewing.'
'Even poisonous plants?'
'Yes, though poisonous plants burn your lips: that's how you know they're poisonous. That's how animals know not to eat them.'
'But you carried on eating them when you knew they were poisonous?'
Spitting out a toxic plant was never an option.

The head gardener suggests that Nick might live to a very old age because of the alchemy involved in his tasting years. I think that the refined, easy-to-chew years may have balanced this out.
'What was the worst thing you ever ate in this garden?' I persist.
'Raw cabbage,' announces Nick. 'Have you ever tried it? Tastes like squashed caterpillars.'

  *A term favoured by gardeners and army personnel.

17 January 2012

Town Gardens

Chelsea Arts Club, London
A garden is a garden even in a club. But there are certain battles to be fought in the 21st century. People can enjoy the company of others by the lawn or in the needs-must smokers' tent, and it remains a sociable place. To preserve this, there is an impressive ban on communicating with people who are not actually present, ie with any kind of electrical wireless device.

15 January 2012

Right Time, Right Place

This is not a brown picture and that's reason enough to celebrate. Neither freakishly early, nor a hangover from last summer... the primrose has had the decency to disappear for a while before coming back.

As usual, it thrives in its hardy British way, even on an unfriendly dry bank, stoically rising above drought and neglect.

This week we planted out four more trays to join the establishing plants in the Wild Garden at Brooke Hall, and moved over some equally self-sufficient foxgloves. Soon, no more gardening will be required.

13 January 2012

Peter's Tree Logic

'They're very clever, trees are,' says Nick at Brooke Hall. I am inclined to agree. Why else would they bend towards the water, their branches just skimming the top, as though looking for a drink? And when they grow on a steep bank, the upper storey spreading normally, the lower branches reaching down towards the water, filling the whole space with tree... That's clever, or intuitive, or artistic, isn't it?

I am hoping, once again, that Peter will give me a magical, incomprehensible reason why this is so. But where science doesn't provide an answer, there is always logic. To the non-scientific and stubbornly anti-logical mind this can be deflating.

'Answer: deer,' says Peter. 'They will get on their hind legs and eat everything in sight.'
And that is why trees in the country are very rarely seen with their leaves reaching the ground. Except holly of course.

Where water is involved, you may see trees growing out of it, for instance in a large reservoir like Eyebrook in Rutland. The trees were there before the land was flooded. The lower branches in reservoir trees and those growing by streams and rivers do not dip below the water as the leaves would not be able to photosynthesise.
 'The growth line reaches down to the highest level of a flood,' says Peter. Green shoots submerged in flood water do not live very long.

Sensible trees. And is it a primal instinct to reach over towards water, like the one pictured above?
Peter's answer is - more logic.
 'Which way is the prevailing wind?'
 Who knows about prevailing winds: many people don't know which direction is North. Even some gardeners. I start to wail.
'But I want trees to have feelings, that's the problem!'
Peter briskly responds, sounding like a grammar school teacher in an unheated classroom.
'They don't.'

11 January 2012

Psychology with Peter

Or, where do all the twigs go?
Being exposed to the elements five days a week - from dawn to dusk for half of the year - affects one's outlook. Nick at Brooke Hall says things which can be interpreted any way you like: sometimes he speaks in truisms and other times he sounds a bit mystical. When we go to clear the twigs on the South Lawn he points out that there is always the same amount in that place, whether the twigs were cleared two weeks ago or two months ago. My view is that a certain amount of picking up goes on, in passing. Estate gardeners are often seen snapping twigs in half on their way from a to b, throwing them out of sight behind a bush or tree. The level of debris is monitored subconsciously. But I am hoping for a scientific explanation.

'It's to do with human nature and has nothing whatever to do with science,' says Peter, my logical friend. 'There is a certain density of twigs on the ground that promotes their being picked up. When the density is great enough someone in authority says "The twigs must go." Before the order from above, you never notice them.'

So, really, we are talking about dependence on power and a need to be controlled. 'It's purely psychological,' says Peter, as if closing the book. But what I'd like to say is, psychology is a science. And it has everything to do with gardening.

04 January 2012

Black Gold

With a ray of sunshine on the side
Top tip from a very experienced estate gardener:
The best composting accessory is a tractor.

The newest part of the heap before mixing (above) and after (top). It is six weeks old and is beginning to look like the real thing already.

02 January 2012

Don't Fence Me In

In Connecticut, where I spent some of my formative years, the picket fence or split rail fence is part of the look. They run along the fronts of houses, separating them in a genteel way from the pavement, if there is one. But in the back yard, Americans want to be given the wide open spaces that they love, and the boundaries between neighbours can be very lax, only sometimes involving a fence. It might be something to do with the frontier. Here in Middle England we love our 12ft Leylandii hedges which mark out each householder's plot with a heavy hand and a deep shadow. So it is delightful to see handmade fences and laid hedges which are naturally decorative and may or may not be about ownership (not usually being attached to a house). There is nowhere better than a nature reserve to see a beautiful fence: the spindly ones act as a symbolic warning to humans, and the double thick impenetrable ones are intended for something else altogether.

A fence-hedge hybrid, not designed to deter animals.

A wild and deep hedge, minimally weaved. Kept together with stout vertical hazel poles, and clamped down with semi-circles of bent wood laid horizontally over the mass. Impenetrable to larger beasts while providing a shelter to smaller ones.
The hedge shown at the top (and above) is impossibly thick and impermanent, with twigs and branches thrown in between the struts in an untidy medieval mess. May be intended as a stop and shop for nesting birds.
And finally, as if heaven-sent, a piece of hand-made fence disguised as a gate, which doesn't open and leads nowhere and serves no purpose. It's a lovely thing.