- Green House
April - May - June 2007
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01 Apr 2007 - AURICULAS
Some plants make you fall in love with them, and then they break your heart. The first time I saw auriculas – at a Royal Horticultural Society show in London many years ago – I was smitten. I spent ages deliberating over which of the pretty painted faces, with their endless and unlikely colour combinations of green and grey, old gold, burgundy, brown and even black, were to come home with me. I displayed them proudly on my garden table, showing them off to all who came to visit. And I loved them with a passion – until, later that year, they died.
Auriculas, I have since learned, are by no means the easiest of plants to care for. Many are best kept under glass, and watered from below, as the slightest splash of water will cause their colourful petals to run – like make-up – and destroy the delicate powdery “farina” on their leaves. Though they hate to dry out, and will droop and decline in too much sun, neither will they tolerate damp – the roots will rot in heavy wet soil. The plants need dividing and re-potting every August, and are hopelessly prone to vine weevil, which will devour the roots. Small wonder, with my peripatetic lifestyle – hurtling up and down the motorway from one house to another – that our relationship has failed to thrive. Some years, I have managed to keep a few plants going from the previous spring, but they’ve never bloomed as prodigiously. And whenever I’ve got round to potting on the offsets that form around the parent plant, the labels have gone astray, so I’m never sure exactly what I’m left with.
You’d think that auriculas, with their rarified colour combinations seldom seen in other flowers, would have an aristocratic history. Far from it. For well over a hundred years, auricula growing, like lurcher breeding and pigeon-fancying, was the province of silk weavers and lace-makers who worked from home in tiny cottages in the north of England. Where space was at a premium the diminuitive size of the plants, as well as their astonishing colours, must have been part of the draw – and new varieties were raised in the most unpromising places. I like to think of the pleasure the plants must have given these people – still untied to factory time-punches, they could spare a few moments in the daytime to wander outside and tend their collections, making up for lost time at night when needed. Societies – now under the umbrella of the National Auricula and Primula Society (www.auriculaandprimula.org.uk) sprang up so that devotees might show their plants to one another and compete for prizes.
For a short period in the 17th century, auricula fancying was as fierce as tulipomania, with rare and double-flowered forms changing hands for as much as £20 – about £3000 in today’s terms. And in the 18th century, when breeding continued apace in England and France, the first green-edged variety was introduced: ‘Pott’s Eclipse’, from which all the other lovely green-, grey- and white-edged auriculas have evolved. (Like streaks on tulips, the green edge was caused by a freak mutation - the edge of the petal was turning into a leaf.) It was at this time that the fashion for displaying auriculas in ‘theatres’ arose. None is finer than that at the National Trust’s Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, dating from the 19th century and wonderfully restored in 1991 to display hundreds of plants.
Displaying auriculas in a roofed but open-sided structure is still a good way to show off the plants while providing the shelter they require. If a theatre sounds too grand for your tastes, a shallow shed or open-sided lean-to will do, with plenty of shelving of course. The garden designer and writer Mary Keen, a passionate auricula lover, tends 150 or more potted plants in a converted privy at her Gloucestershire home – the roof has been glazed over, and the rear wall painted black as a foil to the jewel-bright colours. And David Wheeler, editor of the garden journal Hortus, houses a fine display in what looks like an antique wooden bookcase – with the odd sheep’s skull and other objets trouvees, it is a real cabinet of curiosities.
Looking through the catalogues, I feel temptation stirring again. Take ‘White Wings’, with its grey-green petals, blotched with burgundy at the centre and edged with white; ‘Pharaoh’ – gold-centred with glowing orange petals smouldering into brown – or even one of the simpler velvety dark blood reds, like ‘Rosalind’ or ‘The Raven’. I know it’ll end in tears. But tricky plants, like occasionally tricky people, are often the most rewarding. And whoever said the path of true love ran smooth?
Woottens of Wenhaston in Suffolk (01502 478258/ www.woottensplants.co.uk) is an excellent source of auriculas – at their best at the nursery from mid to late April this year. Check out the website for their special collection of six named Auriculas for £20.50 - a saving of 12% off their normal list price (just click on ‘Shop’ and type the word ‘collection’ in the search box). The collection, which includes one plant each of ‘Alice Haysom’ (rich dark red), ‘Golden Splendour’ (soft gold perfect double), ‘Ken Gailton’ (gold-centred dark red Alpine), ‘Lila’ (light-centred purple Alpine), ‘Tosca’ (red flowers with a green edge) and ‘Harry Hotspur’ (light-centred pink Alpine), comes with a free copy of the Woottens Auricula colour catalogue which is packed full of photographs and growing advice. Woottens’ Plantsman’s Handbook – more of a reference book than a catalogue, and beautifully written and illustrated – costs £8.50 inc p&p, but Sunday Telegraph readers who order a copy will receive a £7.00 mail order voucher in return, to be used before the end of May.
08 Apr 2007 - EASTER BUDS
“Look, mummy, it’s opened!” cried Mary, my nearly-three-year-old daughter, as we sat down to breakfast the other day. In front of her, in a jar of water, was the sprig of horse chestnut we had snapped off a tree in the park a week or so before (just one is permissible for this purpose every year, I feel). Back then it had been hard to persuade a small child that this bare twig, with its sticky brown buds, was worth taking home. But, sure enough, after a few days of central heating, the dark scaly covering of the top bud began to split, revealing a fragment of folded, fuzzy grey-green leaf. Day by day the amount of green grew, until that morning, when all three leaves emerged, still folded on the end of soft, silvery stalks, and looking for all the world like an old man of the woods, stretching with clenched fists after a long sleep. It may sound fanciful, but anyone who has seen the 19th century German photographer Karl Blossfeldt’s study of exactly this subject will know what I mean. We have a copy of his photograph of a horse chestnut bud opening on our landing, and it makes me smile whenever I see it.
It is a delight to share the joys of spring with my daughter. Buds bursting open after the long cold months of winter are such a potent symbol of change and renewal, and she senses my excitement on a walk in our local woods, where the tracery of bare branches is suddenly tinged with green. The hazel is just beginning to break, with snips of tightly-ribbed green on the tips of the branches; then will come the hawthorn and birch, and lastly the beech, like scraps of bright green silk in the sunlight, and the untidy greenish-yellow tassles of oak. In our country garden, I cut a few twiggy branches to bring inside to speed up the opening – combining a little light pruning with decorating the house. Add some sprigs of forsythia if you have it – to my mind those bright yellow flowers look better in a vase than in the border, and it’s fun to watch the knobbly brown buds open in the warmth. On Easter Sunday, we hang our collection of bright painted eggs from the branches.
All over Britain, gardens are burgeoning with buds about to burst. Watching them is one of life’s great pleasures – and reason to take time out from tidying the borders and find a place to sit still. You’ll need patience to see anything to compete with the speeded-up time-release photography on television, but there are real treats to be had. Opium poppies, on a sunny spring day, can split their glaucous green buds to shake out the finest tissue-paper frills, and I’ve never forgotten the thrill of seeing a hibiscus flower unfurl one early morning on a balcony in Rome. Some buds are almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves. Those of the pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), just emerging around Easter, are encased in hairy silver sepals as soft as down – a delicate foil for the velvety mauve petals within. Another of my favourites is the nectaroscordum, whose curious, greenish-pink flowers are held in a tall, tissue-thin sheath, twisted at the top like the minaret of a mosque. In my London front garden, they rise high above the mounds of lower-growing silver-leaved plants, the buds growing fatter day by day until you can detect the individual outlines of the flowers within. One sunny day is all it takes for the tissue to tear and drop those subtly streaked bells in a dangling, dancing dome – sometimes with the top of the tissue left balancing, like a jaunty cap, on top. As the flowers fade to cream, crisp up and die, they close and point upwards again, as if trying to become buds once more.
Roses, of course, are beautiful in every stage of their growth. Often the buds are of a stronger hue than the full bloom – pink buds often opening into white and, in the case of the China rose ‘Mutabilis’, tawny orange buds becoming first apricot and then coppery-cream flowers. And who has not wondered at a peony bud, so round and tight and fat, and had to suspend disbelief that it could possibly contain all that blowsy, ball-gown abundance? A happy Easter to you all.
15 Apr 2007 - SPRING CLEARING
Fifty four plastic plant pots; a large bag of scallop and cockle shells; various drinking glasses; a small plastic baby; some worn chunks of driftwood and a large pile of wood. This is the booty yielded by my most recent burst of garden clearing down at the seaside. Like Hercules mucking out the Augean stables, this is a task that I never seem able to complete. Does new debris blow in on the sea winds, or get dumped by ne’er-do-wells in my absence (both reasonably likely)? At least this time it is reasonably useful – we can burn the wood, use the driftwood as sculptural seats and the shells to decorate the ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ garden around my daughter’s little playhouse. And I’ll never have to buy another plastic plant pot in my life.
Actually, it is really only the lower part of the garden that now needs clearing – the part where I want to establish some woodland spring planting beneath the damsons and gnarled old elders – and I have been out there in all weathers picking up detritus and rooting up weeds. Brambles, nettles and dandelions are my principle prey – and I want to get the worst of them up before the ground bakes hard. As for the bindweed, I am going to wait until it puts on more growth and then try out a tip sent by a reader (thank you Mrs McNaughton of Stratford-upon-Avon): bundle the snaking tendrils into sawn-off 2 litre plastic drink bottles and treat with systemic weedkiller within the confines of the bottle, to prevent other plants being spoiled. Till now an organic gardener in every other respect, my moral fibre wilts when it comes to bindweed. I tried the eco-option of rooting it up and sieving the soil at my London allotment and the fruit cage was still strung with its floppy white flowers every summer, like bunting for a fete. I can do without its pernicious presence here.
In London, too, I have been busy. My gardening efforts in this tiny 20 by 20ft space run to two big annual clear ups in autumn and spring – the rest is just day-to-day pottering. I spent a recent balmy day gathering up fallen leaves, pruning climbers that had got out of hand, and cutting back dead foliage. The silvery astelias (A. chathamica ‘Silver Spear’), glaucous grey-green Melianthus major and other plants previously in the shadow of the winter-flowering cherry have really bushed out since I uprooted it, and the other ground-covering plants I added – hellebores, periwinkles and variegated lamiums – are establishing well. All the plants needed attention; old leaves pulled or trimmed out to give the new spring growth full rein; soil firmed up around wind-rocked roots; a sprinkling of seaweed fertilizer and a mulch of garden compost (from my trusty wormeries) around their bases.
It was slow but satisfying work. As I made my way around the garden – avoiding the area behind the large honey spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) where robins are nesting – I was heartened by this process of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, and aware of its parallels in other areas of life. At times (and often spring is when it strikes us most) it seems right to get rid of stuff – of possessions, even people, and ways of life that have had their day and are no longer needed, blocking the energy and getting in the way of new growth. Some come away easily, while others – the strappy dead brown leaves of the astelias spring to mind – cling on as if they do not want to go. After a good clear out the garden, just like my life, looks clearer and more beautiful and spacious. Gone is the tangled confusion of old mixed with new, dead with alive, unhealthy with healthy. In its place is a vibrancy that is almost tangible, with clear-cut contrasts between the fragile fresh green leaves and rich, dark soil. The plants seem perkier – as if they’ve been given a new haircut or makeover. You can almost feel the pent-up energy of spring vibrating in the air around them.
Energized by the work, my next task was to clear-out the ancient lilac VW camper van that has been sitting, neglected, in a corner of the seaside garden since my daughter was born. The veteran of many a music festival, and often commandeered as an mobile greenhouse for raising sweet corn and tomato seedlings, it deserves a more dignified old age. I’d like to get it back on the road, but if this is not possible, it could make a groovy garden shed or playhouse, with a purple clematis and other climbers trained across the roof.
22 Apr 2007 - MOROCCAN GARDENS
One of the thrills of our recent holiday in Morocco was a trip to the famous Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech. Created by the French painter, Jaques Majorelle in the 1920s, and now owned by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, they are renowned for the striking combination of bright blue and indigo masonry amid thickets of cacti, bamboo and other exotic plantings. As I wandered beneath the shade of huge rubber trees, and around the square lily pond in which the Modernist blue pavilion is reflected, I took in the startling colour contrasts - scarlet pelargoniums in verdigris green pots, crimson and magenta bougainvillea tumbling down bright blue walls – and marvelled at the many different leaf shapes, from the folded fans of chusan palms to the spines of squat Echinocactus grusonii. Whether planted in pots or in their own well-tended circle of open soil, the plants are all in tip-top condition.
The Majorelle is by far the most famous of Morocco’s open gardens, but there is inspiration to be found in all sorts of places, from hotel rooftops and terraces to shady townhouse courtyards to the palms and succulents in old painted oil cans that cheer up the dusty street corners. At the Villa Maroc in Essouira, on the Atlantic Coast, I fell in love with the hotel roof terrace – a townscape in itself with its, towers and turrets, stained glass windows and bamboo canopies, all decked out in signature blue and white paint. Large painted pots of palms and cacti stood sentry around the outer walls, while pots of bright pelargoniums looked pretty on small tiled tables. At another hotel, the Hippocampe in the lazy lagoon town of Oualadia, rooms opened straight onto a vibrant jungly garden, where pink pelargoniums romped up tree trunks, bougainvillea and nasturtiums twined around blue-painted arches, and bright painted pots looked smart on the black and white tiled floor.
The most magical and atmospheric of all the gardens I saw was actually the most simple: the tiny courtyard garden of Riad Magi, where we stayed in Marrakech. We arrived in the city at sunset, dropped off on the edge of the famous square, Djemaa El Fnaa, just as the smoke was beginning to rise from the impromptu food stalls and the snake charmers’ pipes were giving way to the drums of the evening dancers. It was a job to catch up with our guide from the hotel as he ducked and dived between basket sellers and storytellers, and dipped into an outer corner of the souk, where leather belts, bags and babouche slippers were strung up on show. Just after a small mosque, he took a sharp left turn into a high-sided alleyway and all of a sudden the chaos and cacophony fell away far behind. Our footsteps echoed up the tall walls as we made what seemed like six or seven more right-angle turns until we were standing before a wide wooden door, studded with square iron nails. It opened into a feast of sensory delights: first to hit was the scent of orange blossom - four slender orange trees had been planted in the central courtyard of the xx-century Riad or townhouse, their foliage level with the first-floor windows and forming a shady canopy by day, that also retained the fragrance by night. Around the base of each tree was a square tiled bed filled with stripy green and white spider plants and ringed with white night lights. A gently plashing fountain played in the middle, its pool filled with rose petals – roses are everywhere in Morocco and as the bunches in the bedrooms began to fade, the petals were often stripped and sprinkled outside.
Back home in England, it is tempting to take too much from these Moroccan gardens, and important to remember that the climate, light and architecture there are very different from our own. Getting carried away with bright blue paint in a British back yard is short-hand for saying you have watched far too many garden makeover shows. And bright white walls don’t always wash (sometimes quite literally, with the algae that can get ingrained) in the average English winter. But as warmer evenings in the garden beckon, I’ll take a little inspiration from the gardens I’ve seen, and paint a few pots and chairs, plant up some crassulas and kalanchoes, and create atmosphere with scents and subtle lighting. Happy memories will do the rest.
29 Apr 2007 - HENS IN THE GARDEN
Chickens bustling about the garden, rooting out slugs and snails by day and retiring to a pretty hen house at night, are an idyllic vision that is tempting to many gardeners. In theory, hens and gardening can make a very happy partnership, with the birds providing natural pest control and a potent soil conditioner (in the form of their droppings), as well as a welcome supply of eggs. The reality, however, can often be very different, as my sister found out shortly after taking possession of her first pair of birds last month. “My borders are in shreds!” came the desperate wails down the phone. “I love my chickens, but they’re eating everything in sight!” Time to take her to meet Francine Raymond, who has been happily and successfully gardening alongside a motley collection of chickens, ducks and bantams for fifteen years. Francine’s business, The Kitchen Garden, based at her cottage in rural Suffolk, offers courses on domestic poultry keeping, and sells a range of gardening and hen-keeping products that are as decorative as they are useful.
When we arrived on a warm spring morning, Church Cottage in Troston was the perfect advertisement for the peaceful and productive co-existence of hens and humans. Francine had been pottering in borders lush with lime-green euphorbias, bluebells and dusky pink hellebores, while a splendid buff Orpington led her week-old chicks on their first foray across the lawn. A handsome cockerel - the Henry VIII of the poultry world with a chest almost two feet across – was sheltering in the shade of a tall yew hedge, while more hens clucked contentedly around a pretty pitched-roofed henhouse -painted pink and green to match the paintwork of the house, sheds and shop. To one side of the main garden, a neat kitchen plot had rows of lettuce, leeks and artichokes in raised wooden beds, while on the other a cutting patch behind a picket fence had tulips and other flowers for the house. Not a stripped petal nor dust crater in sight.
The secrets of gardening with chickens, according to Francine, include choosing the right types to begin with, protecting your plants, and confining your birds to certain areas at key times of the year. My sister’s main problem, it seemed, is that the hens that came with her fashionable ‘Eglu’ henhouse are commercial hybrids, bred for maximum egg-production rather than a manageable presence in the garden. As such, they are “eating machines”, explains Francine, regarding prize garden plants and seedlings as nothing but fast food. Traditional pure-breeds such as Orpingtons, Cochins and Brahmas are less voracious - but less prolific, too. So if it’s a high yield of eggs you’re after, you may need more hens.
Francine’s chickens are not given a free run of the garden all year. In late spring, she confines them to a large run into which she throws all weeds, mowings, prunings and other gardening waste for them to scratch through and eat. Come July, when the garden is more mature, they are let out again, with vulnerable plants protected by woven wicker cloches. The vegetable beds are covered with low, lift-off cages made from chicken wire stretched over light timber frames, while newly-planted trees and shrubs have flints and pebbles shored up around their trunks and stems.
Francine loves gardening with her hens. “They follow me around darting between my feet for insects as I turn the soil with my trowel,” she explains. “Be patient and leave the freshly dug soil for them to explore before planting out the next day.” She recommends mulching with mushroom compost, which hens don’t seem to like, and covering new plants with cloches until established. Come autumn and winter, the birds really come into their own, especially in the kitchen garden where they forage for pests and finish off old crops, manuring the beds as they go. Fallen leaves cover muddy patches in the run, or are dried and used as bedding – all metamorphosing into excellent compost in the end.
Francine’s books are full of mouth-watering recipes for using the eggs that are, for most people, the chief motive for keeping chickens (anyone for sorrel and herb soufflÈ or lemon meringue ice cream?) But as the years go by, her birds have earned their keep in other ways. “Of course it would be easier without those pecking beaks, scratching claws and smelly deposits,” she confesses, in her latest book, All My Eggs in One Basket (see offer). “But I would be losing drama, colour, interest - and compost. Now when I visit homes without some kind of avian livestock, they seem two-dimensional, flat, and boring…” My own peripatetic existence, split between London and the seaside, makes caring for chickens impossible for now - though Francine did tell me of a couple who transport a couple of chickens to Wales at weekends. But when I’m ready to keep a few hens in my garden I know exactly where to go for advice and inspiration – not to mention the most stylish of hen-keeping accessories.
The Kitchen Garden, Church Lane, Troston, Suffolk IP31 1EX (01359 268322/www.kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk) is open Fridays and Saturdays from 10am till 5pm from Easter until the end of September.
With the constant threat of bird flu, 2006 was a difficult year for Francine Raymond. But she is not one to despair in adversity, and not only set up the Henkeepers’ Association for free online up-to-date poultry information (www.henkeepersassociation.co.uk) but also wrote a journal of life at Church Cottage, beautifully illustrated with photographs of her hens, house and garden, and interspersed with tasty recipes, gardening and hen-keeping tips. Usually priced at £18.50 plus £2.50 p&p it is available to Sunday Telegraph readers for £20 mail order, with 10 per cent off all other purchases (mail order or from the shop (see above for details) until the end of May.
06 May 2007 - PEONIES AT PENSHURST
One of the high points of last summer was a visit to Penshurst Place in Kent when the famous peony border was in full bloom. These are not the deep dark-red cottage garden peonies (Paoenia officinalis) that are out now, but the heavenly Chinese peonies (P. lactiflora) that flower a few weeks later in white and all shades of pink from shell to deepest crimson. To the far side of the orchard at Penshurst, more than a thousand plants in a wide border 130 yards long make a spectacular sight in late May and early June. And their fragrance, often overlooked, but here locked in by high hedges on either side, is almost overwhelming.
Once my eyes became accustomed to the wider view – and it is hard to think of anywhere one can see more peonies gathered together in the same place – I took time to focus in on individual flowers. The cultivars are not labelled, but I think I spotted P. lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’, with its ribbon-like, lemon inner petals cupped by the perfect curve of its bright pink outer ones; double white ‘Duchesse de Nemours’, whose gently incurving petals are lemony-green at the base; blush pink ‘Shirley Temple’, whose huge fragrant flowers, blushed with pink, can be 20cm in diameter; deep rose ‘June Morning’ and crimson ‘Roundelay’. Last year’s flowers, plumped up by the rain that washed out much of the Chelsea Flower Show, were magnificent – among the best that Lord and Lady de L’Isle, who live at Penshurst, can remember since the previous Viscount planted the border in the 1970s.
Few of us have a border of any size – let alone one 130 yards long – to devote to peonies, but there is no doubt that these flamboyant flowers benefit from grouping together, in the opulent spirit of the belle Èpoque. Not that they are poor mixers – the dwarf ‘Munstead’ lavender hedge at Penshurst is a classic combination (with the added purpose of preventing heavy, dew-laden blooms from drooping on the ground), and they also associate well with xx and xxx.
Peonies have a reputation as a one-hit wonder – stunning for the two or three weeks they are in bloom and then of no further interest – but I love watching the dark red shoots pushing through the soil in early spring and gradually turn green as the other herbaceous plants bush out around them. By April, the distinctive round buds are forming – so tight and hard that you can hardly imagine them opening into huge blowsy blooms. And in the autumn, when the flowers are long gone, many of the Chinese peonies have beautiful bronzy foliage and red, black and orange seedheads that are almost as popular with flower arrangers as the blooms themselves. It’s worth waiting till well into winter to cut back the leaves.
Peonies are also often thought of as difficult plants, but once established, they will put up with the minimum of care. In fact, the best way to make them sulk and refuse to flower is to over-interfere and move them about too much. Just a little quiet attention, however, will reward you with healthier plants with many more blooms. In the first place, buy good plants. Peonies in 3 litre pots will flower a lot faster and more prolifically than smaller, cheaper plants; and a decent-sized clump begged from a friend or neighbour will be even quicker to get going. Prepare the site well, with plenty of well-rotted farmyard manure and bonemeal forked into the planting hole, and ensure the young plants don’t dry out. From then on it’s just a light mulch of sieved garden compost every spring over the crowns – this keeps the moisture in and weeds down as well as feeding future flowers. Keep horticultural fleece handy to avoid damage from late frosts – a cold snap in early May took half the buds at Penshurst back in xxx.
Peonies can be floppy plants, and the prettiest way to stake them is by pushing in a few hazel or other twiggy sticks around them. You can divide the clumps after flowering if you wish, but it is not necessary as even huge woody old stumps just keep on putting out flowers. It’s not uncommon for peonies planted 70 or 80 years ago still to be blooming away in the border with no special treatement whatsoever. This year looks set to be another bumper year for the peonies at Penshurst. Make sure you get to see them at their best.
The gardens at Penshurst Place, Penshurst, Kent TN11 8DG (01892 870307) are open daily from 11am-6pm till November.
Kelways Ltd, Barrymore Farm, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ (01458 250521/www.kelways.co.uk) are an excellent source of peony plants.
13 May 2007 - GOING NATIVE
Earlier this year, when Vogue asked me to write a piece on the new-found popularity of native plants, I realized the tide was turning. Over the past few years, native plants and wildflowers have been cropping up in show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show (always a good barometer of changing plant fashions), but here was our leading style magazine, not noted for its gardening coverage, bucking the trend. (I tried to imagine the editorial meeting at which the article was suggested: “How to wear the new mini– tick! New Prada handbags – tick! Bluebells are the new white lilies – fabulous darling!”)
Britain’s native plants – many of them for too long dismissed as weeds and relegated to the hedgerows – are finally being welcomed back into our gardens. As a wilder aesthetic takes root, the showy imports and cultivars that have held sway since Victorian times are beginning to look blowsy and vulgar beside the quieter charms of homegrown species. And as the environmental crisis forces us to re-evaluate the way we garden, the fact that indigenous plants are easy to care for without the aid of chemicals, artificial heat and long-distance transport, can only be in their favour. Pioneering gardeners such as the late Christopher Lloyd have been replacing lawns with wildflower meadows, fences with native hedgerows, and planting orchards of old English fruit trees. Others, like landscape designer Arne Maynard, are realizing that that the delicate native dog rose (Rosa canina), with its five fragile, papery petals, is every bit as beautiful as its opulent French and Chinese cousins; that oak, ash, hawthorn and hornbeam have more resonance with our landscape than bananas and bamboo; and that the small single blooms of native poppies, primulas (the common primrose) and pansies (the tiny, two-tone mauve and yellow Viola tricolor) can more than hold their own beside the over-sized, frilled and double-flowered versions developed by breeders. As pride in local and seasonal produce spills over from the kitchen, landscape architects are also finding inspiration closer to home, even selecting native coastal plants such as sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), electric blue viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), and the yellow horned poppy (Glaucium flavum) as indigenous alternatives to Mediterranean plants in the latest drought-proof planting schemes.
It was the Victorian craze for plant hunting and breeding that pushed our native plants into the shade. Until the 19th century, British gardens were a picturesque mixture of indigenous flowers such as honeysuckle, fritillaries and lily of the valley, with a handful of early imports like lilies, lavender, peonies, crocus and pot marigolds. With the lifting of the glass tax in 1845, tender exotics could be coaxed through cold British winters in huge coal-fired glass houses. The fashion for ornamental bedding, with countless brightly-coloured, highly cultivated plants arranged in temporary displays of complex geometric patterns, saw gardening grow as far away from nature as was possible. By the year 2000 only about 5 per cent of the 66,000 plants on sale from catalogues and garden centres were native. Even more worrying for our 1785 native plants, their natural rural habitats were under threat from intensive chemical farming and over-development.
Dame Miriam Rothschild was one of the first to realize what all this was doing to the English landscape. ‘A snooker table! I’m living on a snooker table!’ she exclaimed back in the 1960s on gazing out at the uniform green lawns and fields surrounding her house at Ashton Wold near Peterborough. Her front lawn was soon transformed into a wildflower meadow, with local species plants intermingled with the exotics in other parts of the garden. By the time she died in 2005 she was one of the leading authorities on the conservation and cultivation of British flora. HRH Prince Charles at Highgrove, the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter and Pam Lewis at Sticky Wicket in Dorset are among the many inspired by her example.
Native plants are those that arrived in the UK independently of humans. Having evolved and adapted here over centuries, they are perfectly suited to our soil and climate, requiring minimal maintenance and usually less watering than exotic imports. They also play a vital role in wildlife conservation. Many modern cultivars have little or no nectar, or have petals so distorted by inter-breeding that insects can no longer reach it, while foreign plants often flower too early or too late to be of use as a food source. “Countless insects and animals are dependent on just one or two particular plants to survive,” explains Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, who set up Flora for Fauna in 1993, to highlight this complex interdependency. “Our native oak supports several hundred species of wildlife, whereas the London plane (actually a hybrid of American and oriental planes) supports just one insect species in the UK.” She has also helped set up a native plants website which tells you which native plants are most suited to your area – tap in your postcode at www.nhm.ac.uk/fff and see if you can’t find room for a few native beauties in your garden.
20 May 2007 - THE “CHELSEA CHOP”
Whether global warming is to blame, or the vagaries of the British climate, spring certainly came early this year. In my London garden, roses, wisteria and various herbaceous plants that would normally be coming into their own around now were in full flower by mid April. Three years ago [this week], when my daughter was born, I remember my husband turning up at the hospital with the first pink-tinged blooms of our lovely ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ rose. This year they have already been flowering their socks off for six weeks or so. In fact, everything is so far advanced, one starts to wonder what will be left in store for the rest of the summer, should things continue in this vein. This is particularly worrying for those, like myself, who will be opening our gardens for charities such as the National Gardens Scheme, or who have scheduled summer parties to coincide with maximum colour and interest.
In an effort to delay things a bit, I’ve taken to some judicious picking and pruning. We all know that dead-heading roses and hardy annuals is the best way to keep the flowers coming, but it’s easy to forget that many other plants can benefit from an early summer prune or cut back. ‘The Chelsea Chop’ – the practice common among growers to keep plants looking fresh by giving them a good haircut after the Chelsea Flower Show has ended - takes courage, but can yield great results. I have performed it, heart in hands, on hardy perennials such as Alchemilla mollis, Nepeta and cranesbill geraniums – usually a little later in the year. Stripped back to short bare stems, the plants look pretty forlorn for a fortnight or so – and for this reason I’ve often tried to do the deed before disappearing on holiday. Placate them with a good water and feed, and the plants should produce fresh frills of new growth in your absence. The foliage of autumn-flowering perennials such as rudbeckia and heleniums can also be cut back about now – this should not delay flowering too much but will result in bushier plants with more blooms and a reduced need for staking. In mixed borders, such treatment can also be used to control the height of very tall plants such as hollyhocks, which can often look out of scale, or time flowering to coincide with a neighbour that naturally flowers later.
The ‘Chelsea Chop’ suits some plants more than others. This is not the place to give a long list of examples, but to recommend the best book on the technique – the new and expanded version of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (Timber Press £25). Do not be put off by Tracy’s Bo Derek braids and Transatlantic turn of phrase. She really knows her stuff, and a good two thirds of the book consists of a directory of garden plants and the pruning treatment they require to flower their best and longest. Some general tips include not cutting back into wood that does not have live buds, particularly on plants such as lavender and artemesia, or you will be left with sad twiggy sticks – though both can be sheared by one third should the plants fall open in a dry summer, in order to return them to form.
If you are feeling cautious, or are unsure of the treatment required for a particular plant, experiment by cutting back only half the growth to see how it responds. This is what I have been doing in my own garden, and it seems to be working well. It can be done in two ways: by taking the entire front, back or side section down to just above ground, or with piecemeal cutting from all over the plant which obviously takes longer. With bushy plants such as gorgeous silver-leafed Convulvulus cneorum and the perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’, I have been pruning out flowers and foliage from the heart of the plants, as well as peripheral stragglers. This has the effect of opening up the structure and allowing in more air and light, which can prevent disease as well as encourage new, all-over flowers. And by stopping back the peacock blue bracts of Cerinthe major purpurascens both before and after they produce their tiny, electric violet flowers, I’m hoping to get a good flush of fresh new flowers in time for my garden opening. Doing it this way is not only softer on one’s nerves; it also avoids the shorn sheep look. The welcome by- product, of course, is lots of lovely flowers to arrange around the house and give away to neighbours.
27 May 2007 - BEARDED IRISES
For the few short weeks of their early summer prime, bearded irises are the queens of the garden. With their exotic, tongue-like ‘falls’ cascading down around an inner trinity of curved upright petals or ‘standards’, the flowers have a strange and voluptuous beauty quite unlike any other. Opening one by one, from long pointed buds along a tall and gracefully articulated stem, the blooms crown a striking silhouette. And the ‘beard’ – that caterpillar-like configuration of hairs that emerges from the throat of the flower – is a feature in itself, often in lilac, yellow, white or bright orange, standing out against darker falls of purple or bright blue. The sword-like foliage is an asset; appearing early in the year and providing an architectural foil for the frilled and ruffled flowers. But it is for the gloriously soft texture and colours of their petals that they are most prized. It’s small wonder that so many artists have been inspired to paint irises, from early Japanese watercolourists to Van Gogh to Elizabeth Blackadder.
Irises have always been statuesque, but until recently were never showy. They are named after the Greek Goddess of the rainbow, who was said to scatter irises in all the colours of the rainbow in her wake as she flitted between heaven and earth. Until the turn of the 19th century, however, they were only ever known in plain yellow, white or blue, with perhaps the odd contrasting marking. Even 70 or so years ago, when breeders had mastered the art of creating ‘bicolours’, with falls and standards in contrasting colours, these tended to be permutations of the same existing narrow palette. Since then, the hybridizers have been busy. Blooms have swelled to nearly six inches across – and the petals, once smooth, like flaps of silk velvet, can be as flounced and fluted as a flamenco dancer’s skirt. They can be found in almost every colour imaginable, from the palest blues and lilacs to fashionable inky blue-blacks and bronzes, with a host of yellows, rusty oranges, browns, blues and purples in between. The only colour that has yet to elude the breeders is pure red – they console themselves with the deep browny-reds of ‘Fort Apache’, ‘Red Zinger’ and ‘Inferno’, and the dark pinks of ‘Ambroiserie’ and ‘Cranberry’.
† Bearded irises are among my very favourite flowers. A few years ago, when I redesigned our front garden, I planted fifteen to twenty in the front raised bed, choosing as many as I could from the “remontant” category which has a second blooming period in September. They did excellently the first year, but their performance has dwindled somewhat since then. In my eagerness to possess them, I decided to overlook the fact that, in order to bloom at their best, bearded irises need at least six hours of full sun per day (surely four would be enough, I told myself). I also fell foul by over-planting around them. The knotty yellowish rhizomes from which the plants grow need to be exposed to the sun and given a good baking over the summer. Interplanting as I did with alliums, species gladioli and sisyrinchium was fine, as their leaf cover is minimal; my mistake was to add silvery lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) whose soft woolly leaves not only shaded out the irises but held moisture, too, which they hate. When, last summer, a good half of the plants came up ‘blind’ or flowerless, it was time for drastic measures. The whole lot were dug up and relocated to my garden at the seaside, where they are now thriving in a well-drained soil and open sunny site. Blessed with more space there, I have decided not to interplant them at all – and splendid isolation does seem the way to enjoy bearded irises at their best. Gertrude Jekyll always used to plant them in rectangular beds set in stone paving, but don’t despair if you haven’t the space for a large dedicated bed. The thin stretch of poor dry soil in front of a south-facing house wall is ideal for a few clumps, with perhaps a climbing rose or wisteria overhead. You’d have to make do with just the fans of grey-green leaves for most of the year. But the pleasure of those few short weeks in late May and early June (and autumn, too, if you choose cleverly) – with a swathe of beautiful flowers blooming their heads off – would be intense enough to last all year.
SEE AND BUY
It’s easy to be tempted by the colours of irises in pots at this time of year, but they hate being confined to containers, and it’s advisable to buy bearded irises is in late summer, just after they have been divided. But now is the time to make your selection – and one of the best ways of doing this is to visit a grower and see all the iris varieties growing in situ. For a truly stunning day out, try the two acre iris field at Woottens of Wenhaston in Halesworth, Suffolk (01502 478258/ www.woottensplants.co.uk, where rows of more than 200 named bearded varieties are laid out in alphabetical order. It’s as beautiful as it is educational – the only problem owner Michael Loftus has is that customers are frequently so dazzled by the carnival of colour that they can’t make up their minds which to buy. This year Woottens’ iris field is open to the public from 20 May to 10 June, with the best blooms forecast for late May. The Plantsman’s Handbook, much more than a catalogue, with Michael Loftus’s pithy and lyrical descriptions, is available through the website for £xx – phone for a free iris catalogue.
03 Jun 2007 - LONDON ROOF GARDENS/OPEN GARDEN SQUARES
I fantasise about floating in a hot air balloon above the rooftops of cities such as London, Paris and New York, simply to snoop at the roof gardens. Whenever I walk around a city, I’m always on the lookout for secret, hidden gardens - shady courtyards, glimpsed through open gateways, or leafy residential squares spied through high railings or gaps in the planting. But it is the rooftop gardens and terraces that are most intriguing - and elusive, even to my inquisitive eyes. Hinted at by a fringe of green above a paraphet, or a solitary birch tree silhouetted against the sky, these urban retreats can never be seen in their entirety from the ground, and few are accessible to the public.
One I had long wanted to see, and which only opens twice a year, is the serene rooftop courtyard of the London Ismaili Centre, just off busy Cromwell Road. Up above the third floor, the air heavy with the scent of jasmine and roses, and the sound of trickling water masking the traffic, I felt thousands of miles – and years – away from modernday London. Laid out in the 1980s in a re-interpretation of the four-fold garden or chahar bagh of ancient Islamic architecture, the geometric design revolves around a central fountain fed by four rills that symbolise the celestial rivers flowing with water, honey, milk and wine. Four further fountains are set in the pale grey granite, with planting in peaceful shades of white and blue against green and silver-grey foliage including silver weeping pears and cylinders of evergreen Ilex aquifolium. The central open space, which is sensitively lit for evening functions, is enclosed by high walls cloaked in scented climbers, with potted white oleanders flanking the entrances. Only when I raised my eyes to the sky did the three domes of the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Brompton Oratory remind me of my barings.
The Ismaili Centre Roof Garden is one of more than 160 private London gardens that are once more opening their gates to the public for the popular Open Garden Squares Weekend, organised by the London Parks & Gardens Trust (LPGT) and sponsored by Loire Valley Wines, on 9 and 10 June 2007 (see below for ticket information). Other notable London roof gardens participating in the scheme include the famous Roof Gardens in Kensington, created above the former Derry & Toms department store in the 1930s and one of London’s most surprising horticultural treats. The place is huge for a roof garden – almost one and a half acres – and divided into three oddly incongruous areas: a Tudor-style Rose Garden, a Woodland Water Garden with Japanese-inspired bridges and bamboos and populated by pink flamingos, and the spectacular Moorish Water Garden with its mature palms, kitsch cloisters and exotic planting. In spite of the fact that the soil is only 3 feet deep, nearly 500 varieties of trees and shrubs thrive in the highly artificial conditions – aided, no doubt, by the fact that aphids and many other pests are unable to survive at this altitude. This year, LPGT visitors have the opportunity to meet the head gardener, and can enjoy a free glass of champagne when dining at the Babylon Restaurant, overlooking the gardens, on Sunday 10 June.
Also open that weekend is the SOAS Roof Garden at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury. Redesigned in 2001 after the previous rooftop pool sprang a catastrophic leak, the space is now dedicated to a Japanese-style garden on the theme of Forgiveness, with an engraved granite water basin, Japanese dry landscape of symbolic rocks and raked gravel, and a smart chequerboard planting of slate pebbles and lemon thyme. Another blissfully peaceful place, part of its charm lies in watching the shifting sun and shadows on wood, water, granite, gravel and stone. A small stage can be used for dramatic performances, tea ceremonies or seated meditation, and live performances of world music are planned for the open weekend.
Creating an urban roof garden is no easy feat – planning permission is usually necessary, as is a structural survey to ascertain what extra weight the roof will bear, and the growing conditions are often akin to a windswept desert. But in a busy town, a garden in the sky can be the best way to achieve a real haven above the hubbub, a truly private and peaceful space, open to the sun and sky and yet protected from prying eyes – apart from those in passing hot air balloons, of course.
Open Garden Squares Weekend is on 9 and 10 June. For further details visit opensquares-loirevalleywines.org. Tickets admitting the bearer to all the gardens, together with 70-page listings leaflet with maps are available from Advance tickets costing £6 can be ordered until the end of Monday 4th June from capitalgardens.co.uk or on 0208 347 3230; alternatively, tickets costing £7.50 may be purchased during the Weekend, check opensquares-loirevalleywines.org for gardens selling tickets.
Many of the gardens featured are listed in The Good Gardens Guide 2007 (Frances Lincoln £14.99) and The London Gardener by Elspeth Thompson (Frances Lincoln £7.99).
10 Jun 2007 - POTTED HERB GARDENS
Buzzing with bees and butterflies, the scent of the plants contained within crumbling stone walls, traditional herb gardens are evocative, romantic places. But if all you have is a small terrace or balcony, do not despair. Many of the design and planting ideas from larger gardens can be easily adapted for use in containers. Rather than a jumble of individual pots, which can look cluttered and demand constant watering over a hot summer, why not plant up larger containers with a careful combination of herbs – to create your very own potted herb garden?
The herb garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent must be one of the most beautiful in the country, with aromatic herbs and edible flowers in radiating beds around an ancient stone fountain. To create a miniature version with perennial appeal, try planting a flowering rosemary bush in the centre of a round container and surrounding it with alternate smaller plants of green and purple sage and curry plant (Helichrysum italicum). All of the above have contrasting colours and textures, as well as a host of culinary uses – and if you intersperse them with the tiny plants from a tray of violas (a two-one purple and white such as ‘Blackberry Cream’ looks great) you’ll have edible flowers that look as pretty sprinkled on salad or floating in drinks as they do growing in the garden.
Another place of inspiration is the garden of HDRA Garden Organic at Ryton near Coventry, where chemicals are cast aside in favour of natural solutions. Herbs and garlic are used there to underplant roses, as the aromatic leaves and roots promote healthy growth and help confuse and deter aphids and other pests. You could do the same by creating your own herb garden around the base of a rose in a large container. The smoky blue-grey-green foliage of rue (Ruta graveolens) and lavender (try silvery Lavandula xx) are a stylish foil for pink or white roses, interplanted with garlic chives or chives, with their perky pink tufts. And scarlet ‘patio’ roses would look lovely with some of the golden or variegated thymes beneath.
Perhaps, like me, you fell in love with the idea of a thyme lawn after watching Dan Pearson’s wonderful television series The Garden a few years back. Instead of yearning for a sloping sunny bank like that at Home Farm, however, get busy with a large shallow container such as a metal tray, old wooden crate or even one of those oblong wicker storage boxes. Good drainage is vital for thyme, so make sure there are adequate holes in the base and, if you choose to prolong the container’s life by lining it with plastic, make a good few slits in this, too. I’ve even made a thyme carpet – more of a thyme rug, really – in an old packing case, weighing down the base with a good few inches of gravel, which also cut down the need for compost. Most larger garden centres have a wide range of creeping thymes, ranging from golden Thymus x pulegioides ‘Aureus’ to lemon-scented T. x citriodorus to variegated and silvery varieties such as T. vulgaris ‘Silver Posie’, which will knit into one another beautifully and attract lots of bees when in flower.
Don’t forget that it is relatively easy to take cuttings of woody-stemmed herbs such as thyme, sage, rosemary and marjoram – a cheap way to ensure you have plenty of plants, especially if you pick a lot for cooking. Cut healthy 3in cuttings to just below a set of leaves, and strip the lower third of foliage. Poke 8 or so cuttings around the edges of a 3in pot full of gritty potting compost and place in a propagator or cover with a plastic bag. Keep well watered and wait till the roots start emerging from the base before potting on into individual 2in pots, and then on into the garden. Not quite so cheap, but pleasingly cheeky, is to make your own plants from supermarket potted herbs – I do this regularly with basil and coriander, and you could try it with thyme and parsley. Water the pots well before carefully tipping the plants out and teasing the tangle of seedlings apart. Six small clumps can then be planted out into three small pots and set on a sunny windowsill. They may flop a bit at first, so wait till they’ve recovered before harvesting the leaves. Basil seems particularly at home alongside tomato plants – then all you need is the mozzarella for the perfect summer salad.
One last word about creating a potted herb garden. Rampantly spreading herbs such as mint and lemon balm will soon swamp any companions, so they are best confined to a beautiful big pot of their own.
17 Jun 2007 - SUMMER CLIMBERS
The summer garden can seem suddenly rather green and drab once the first flush of perennials and climbers have finished flowering. And it’s a long while to wait for the fiery colours of dahlias, crocosmias and other late summer blooms to take up the torch. Some gardeners don’t mind this ‘green gap’, as it coincides with school holidays and seems a good time to go away, but I prefer to be at home in high summer, so I try to find ways to keep the flowers coming. One is to make good use of climbers. Some annual climbers such as morning glory, trailing nasturtiums and black-eyed Susan are all-too-familiar, but there’s a host of others – many of them perennials on their exotic home turf that act as annuals in the UK climate – which are every bit as colourful and versatile. Sown in early spring, or bought now as young plants from specialist nurseries or larger garden centres, they can be planted to clothe walls, climb through shrubs and trees whose moment of glory has passed, or scramble up wigwams or obelisks to bring height, as well as colour, to the border. Given the right support many will also grow well in containers, especially large ones in which the compost won’t be prone to drying out. Annual climbers are also great for cladding bare pergola poles while you’re waiting for long-term climbers like clematis, jasmine or grapevines to establish, or for clothing the bare stems of climbing roses.
The many mauve-flowered climbers are perfect for the purple and silver colour scheme in my little London garden. Top of my list are Cobea scandens, the ‘cup and saucer plant’, whose large flared purple bells open from milky green buds to sit in the ‘saucers’ formed by their open green calyxes, and Rhodochiton atrosanguineum, the gorgeous purple bell vine. The latter, with long deep purple dangling bells emerging from magenta outer petals, looks spectacular teamed with blue or purple morning glory around my front door. On the other side of the entrance I’m sending the pale lemon flowers of maurandya, the snapdragon vine, up into the existing jasmine plant – the dark evergreen foliage of the jasmine will be a good foil for the large bell-like blooms just as the jasmine flowers give up the ghost. Another climber in the yellow colour range, which looks splendidly exotic, is Ipomea lobata, with its spikes of small flowers that change colour from scarlet through orange to yellow and cream as they mature – each spike has up to twelve flowers in the full spread of the different shades. Like Tropaeolum speciosum, the scarlet flame creeper, this is best set off by a dark green backdrop – the latter festoons the clipped yew topiary at Levens Hall in the Lake District to great effect. Tropaeolum speciosum has a reputation for being tricky, but the key seems to be to provide humus-rich, moisture-retentive soil, and a north- or east- facing position with the roots in shade. Gardeners seem to be divided between those who can’t keep it (myself included) and those who can’t get rid of it – if left to spread it can strangle smaller shrubs and trees. If you fancy trying it, Thompson & Morgan are offering 2 plants in 9cm pots for £13.99 – or see offer below.
Another fiery favourite is the Chilean glory vine (Eccromocarpus scaber), with its ferny foliage and flowers in a range of exotic reds, tawny oranges and peach. I’ve seen this looking lovely in pots alongside Thunbergia alata ‘African Sunset’. The glory vine is more vigorous, but it allows the thunbergia (black-eyed Susan) to scramble up and through its host. The flowers of the Chilean glory vine go on for ever, and the roots can even over-winter in milder areas to flower again the following year – cut down the dead stems once the show is over, and mulch over the crown.
To my mind, though, you just can’t beat morning glories. I grow them around my front and back door every summer, and love the thrill of stepping out in the cool early morning to see how many blooms are opening from their tightly-scrolled buds that day. ‘Heavenly Blue’ is the classic, with enormous saucer-like flowers in that heart-stopping clear sky blue, but there are many other shades now such as ‘Star of Yalta’ (iridescent purple with a magenta stripe), ‘Chocolate’ (terracotta pink) and ‘Kniola’s Black Knight’ (deepest maroon), which look great intermingled with the blue form and are often, in my experience, easier to establish. If you didn’t grow them from seed this year, you can find young plants sown three or four to a pot in larger garden centres. And self-sown seed from last year’s flowers will provide a later-blooming batch that should keep on flowering well into autumn.
The RHS Plantfinder 2007 (Dorling Kindersley/RHS £14.99 is invaluable for tracking down unusual plants, and lists many nurseries that sell the plants mentioned.
24 Jun 2007 - GROW – AND SHOW - YOUR OWN
Sales of fruit and vegetable seeds outstripping those of flowers; long waiting lists for allotments; books on garden produce topping the best seller lists and celebrity chefs showing off their new kitchen gardens – it’s no secret that Britain has caught the Grow Your Own bug. There’s even a new feature film about allotments – the excellent Grow Your Own, which follows the fortunes of a cross-section of plot holders, from multi-cultural asylum seekers to traditional old-timers, as a mobile phone company proposes installing a mast on their site. By turns moving and humorous, with more than a touch of the Ealing Comedies about it, it’s a film that all gardeners will enjoy, and is on general release now.
As summer progresses, some of the new converts to kitchen gardening will be among those preparing to enter the fruits of their labours in competitions held in church halls and village greens throughout the country. With trestle tables groaning with produce, all neatly displayed and labelled, these contests are a great British tradition – and hugely enjoyable, especially if, as seems usually to be the case, there is some sort of grumble about who has won and why. (In a wonderful scene in Grow Your Own the new chairman of the allotment committee hands out rather too many of the prizes to herself.) Should you win, the prize money won’t make you rich – but the sense of pride will. I still cherish my First Prize Certificate for ten pods of peas at the Lambeth Country Show back in 2002 – never mind if the only reason I won is that most people’s peas were over by mid-July and I’d just been late sowing mine…
This year, the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show (3-8 July, see below) is celebrating the Grow Your Own trend with several new features in which keen fruit and veg growers can participate, including their first ever Summer Fruit and Vegetable Show. Held on the final weekend of 7-8 July, it aims to bring all the fun and character of a local county show to the capital, with dozens of different classes, including french beans, courgettes, shallots, coloured potatoes, spinach and kohl rabi in the vegetable categories, and blackcurrants, strawberries, red currants and gooseberries in the fruit. The competition is open to anyone who grows fruit, vegetables or herbs in their own garden or allotment - contact the RHS Shows Department on 020 7821 3328, or send a self-addressed A5 envelope to Shows Department, RHS, 80 Vincent Square, London SW1P 2PE, marking your envelope Fruit & Vegetable Comp HCPFS, before 29 June 2007. If you’re tempted to enter your produce – either at Hampton Court or your own local show – check out the advice offered to exhibitors on the RHS website. As a first-timer, I remember being caught out by the draconian rules regarding presentation – onion tops to be neatly trussed, potatoes all of matching size, bloom left undisturbed on peas or grapes – so to ensure your produce is in with the best chance, visit www.rhs.org.uk and click on the Grow Your Own Veg section.
Many of Hampton Court’s show gardens this year have also been designed on a Grow Your Own theme. The Torres Tapas garden is filled to overflowing with the Mediterranean ingredients for making tapas, while in the aptly-named Mange Tout Garden everything is edible, including the flowers.
Gardeners from RHS Wisley will be recreating the 3x3m veg plot featured in Carol Klein’s popular TV series Grow Your Own Veg – this can easily be adapted for any domestic garden and demonstrates how much produce you can grow in a small place. And for ideas on how to cook your home-grown harvest, turn up at Quaglino’s Kitchen where Craig James, head chef of Quaglino’s in St James’s, will be giving daily talks and cookery demonstrations using fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables.
It’s great that kitchen gardening is being encouraged and celebrated. Probably the last time the British grew their own on such a scale was during the Second World War, when back gardens, parks and playing fields were turned over to carrots and potatoes. And we’re still digging for victory, whether it’s for health or economic reasons, to combat global warming, break the stranglehold of the supermarkets on the food supply - or simply for the satisfaction of seeing something grow, from a seed to a plant to something that feeds our body, mind and soul. Let’s hope this trend is one that’s set to last.
The RHS Hampton Court Flower Show is open Tues 3 and Wed 4 July to RHS members only and the general public Thurs 5-Sun 8 July (tickets from £13 to £30 depending on day and time of entry, children £5). Tickets can also be purchased at the gate from Thurs 5. Ring 0870 842234 to book.
Allotment Days by Gardener’s Question Time panelist Michael Biggs is a wonderful celebration of the ‘Grow Your Own’ culture that abounds in British allotments, and of the characters that can be found there. From the pumpkin that sups six pints of beer a day to ‘Brian of Britain’ with his solar-powered, self-winding hosepipe, and the children who’ve learned how to like eating greens by growing them themselves, the people interviewed for this book are as inspiring as they are entertaining – plus there’s tips on getting started with an overgrown plot, coping with pests and diseases, and displaying for competitions. Allotment Days, published by New Holland, IS £9.99.
Sunday Telegraph: Gardening
I write regularly on gardening in the Sunday Telegraph.