Monday, 29 December 2014

After Christmas

I love that week between Christmas and new year’s day, although I’m never quite sure what to call it. ‘Christmastide’ seems a little forced as an expression, and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, whilst being overlong and unwieldy, also refers to a much longer period. ‘Twixmas’, a name coined by the travel industry in order to flog short breaks into a traditionally quiet time, is clearly too ghastly to be of use to anyone other than a travel agent or journalist. Whether this time has its own name or not, it certainly has a distinct feeling; with the first seconds of Boxing Day morning, something seems to pass, and a new mood descends for the next few days.

Friday, 26 December 2014

New client

Boxing Day, barely two degrees above zero, and I’m on my hands and knees in the garden, attempting to rescue the edge of the vegetable patch from the clutches of the lawn while the cold ground freezes all sensation from my muddy knee. It’s the perfect antidote to the bustle of Christmas – the noise, the stresses, the motorway driving – it’s wonderful to catch up with the family, but it’s ever so nice to be home again. Not that it’s exactly quiet out here. Once, I had entertained romantic notions of the bleak, hushed stillness of the winter landscape, with nothing but the drip drip of melting icicles to shatter the silence until the first bird of spring. I’m not quite sure how that idea got into my head, particularly when I consider the number of our avian friends that migrate to this part of the UK from the continent in search of a relatively mild winter. Today, the starlings are deafening and, while my gardening activity is pleasingly solitary, I’m not short of company; robins, blackbirds and collared doves all drop in from time to time to check on my progress, while our resident jackdaws wheel around the rooftop and hop about between the chimney stacks, ack-acking all the while.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Mahonia in the winter garden

Mahonia x media 'Buckland' after a frost
Mahonia seems to have found its way into the average British garden by means of some terrible mistake. For most of the year it stands about stoically, back to the wall, looking stately and rather prickly – like a sentry whose presence you are grateful for, but whose existence you can more or less ignore. But in late November, at the very moment when most people are barricading the back door against the onset of winter, it starts to do its thing, flinging out sprays of acid yellow flowers in a desperate attempt to attract some attention, and come Christmas week it will still be going strong.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

At the Garden Media Guild Awards

Yesterday I exchanged mud-caked boots for polished brogues, grabbed my trusty umbrella with its dog-chomped handle, and boarded the train to London. At midday I was due at the Savoy Hotel, there to attend the annual Garden Media Guild Awards; I arrived early, and spent half an hour strolling around my old stomping ground of Covent Garden, where Christmas shopping was in full swing, and the gardens of the actors’ church of St Paul’s, over which my old office window offered a fine view, are in distinct need of a good tidying up.

I arrived a second or two behind Carol Klein but, both of us managing to successfully negotiate the hotel’s entrance, the amusing anecdote of how-I-got-stuck-in-the-revolving-doors-with-that-Carol-off-the-telly entirely failed to be engendered. It’s probably just as well; no-one likes a name-dropper. There ensued a time of mingling, drink in hand, at which accomplished networkers could be seen working the room; I picked up tips, and filed them away in my head for future use. It was much more fun to poke people with my umbrella, which I’d refused to surrender to the cloakroom staff.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Notes from the greenhouse

I have discovered that autumn sown sweet peas germinate far more reliably when they’re not being eaten by mice. Either science or philosophy might have led me to such a conclusion. The first might have encouraged me to consider whether there’s something about the digestive system of a rodent that disagrees with the awakening metabolism of the embryonic legume, and then to back up my hypothesis with empirical evidence. But it was the philosophical route that led me to my epiphany, via a chance observation I was in a position to make of an existential crisis being sufferred by the seeds in question. One afternoon, I would plant them. The next morning, they were not there.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

First frost

Misty. Damp. Chilly, rather than bitingly cold. The first frost of the year has visited, befogging car windscreens and prettifying foliage. It’s not a heavy frost, but it’ll do for now, and I dearly hope it’s a sign of things to come. We need a good, hard winter – one that calls for scarves and bobble-hats rather than umbrellas and galoshes.

I want it cold and clear and crisp. I want rosy cheeks and tingling toes, ice on my ’tache and a flask in my pocket. I want snow, and winter sun, and walks through silent, white blanketed fields to pubs with open fires, mulled spice wine, hearty food, friends and laughter. I want sledging and snowball fights on the way home, slippers and a good book, cosy untaxing movies on the telly and the gentle patter of large flakes falling softly outside. And when I wake up in the morning, I want hoar frosts and ground frosts and the garden transformed into a storybook tableau, like the Christmas department store windows I saw as a child. And if a reindeer should find its way there, so much the better. But I’ll settle for cold, and clear, and crisp.

Let me know what’s on your winter wishlist by leaving a comment below, or sending me a tweet. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ornamental grasses

Whether it’s due to the autumn sun showing them off to particuarlly fine effect, or to the inescapbable truth that almost everything else in the borders is either starting to look a little tired, or has turned to mush, October has been a month when ornamental grasses have reigned supreme in the garden.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Neighbourhood watch

“We can offer you a cup of tea in a bit,” said Roger, his eyes twinkling as his wife, Elizabeth, finished his sentence. “But I’m afraid if it comes to a drone attack or a CIA sniper, you’re on your own!”. We were standing in their front garden, discussing a phone conversation Roger had just had with one of their neighbours.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Sussex Prairie Gardens

This blog entry should really have been posted in September, but I confess I was waylaid by pelargonium cake. And the rest, I’m afraid, is history

It was the big daises that did it. My spur-of-the-moment acquisition of a car boot full of jolly flowers (which you can read about here) had started a minor obsession, and I spent much of September day-dreaming about late season perennials. It’s one thing to start small, buying a few plants of a handful of varieties – this can have quite a transformative effect on a garden in late summer, and one of the most exciting aspects about these plants is that many welcome division, so that in time you can increase your stock, fill your borders and still probably have enough to give away to friends. So I’ve nothing whatsoever against starting small; I can be patient when it comes to my own garden. But that didn’t mean I was without a hankering to see what someone else had had the opportunity to do with perennial planting en masse – great swathes of identical flowers, interwoven with drifts of complementary forms and textures, with generous clumps of ornamental grasses for good measure. Such was the picture in my head, and so I took myself off to Sussex Prairie Gardens, about an hours drive away.

Friday, 10 October 2014

October showers

A brief interlude between downpours in the woodland garden
“Unsettled” is the word the weather folk use to describe the kind of conditions we’re experiencing at the moment, as if the restless sky can’t quite make up its mind; fickle, antsy. We like to know what to expect – “what's the weather going to be like today?” – so we can be prepared, and dress accordingly. Unpredictable conditions somehow offend our sense of propriety, causing us to tut, glancing upwards and ruefully remarking, “it can’t make up it’s mind today”. One moment the world is bathed in golden sunshine, the next, we’re running for cover, struggling back into waterproofs which only a moment ago were too warm to wear. I’ve spent much of the week doing some kind of frenzied gardener’s strip-tease, leaving piles of clothes around the garden, then dashing back to retrieve them when needed. This kind of palaver is frustrating for those of us doomed to wander beneath the sky on two legs, who choose our interchangeable pelts according to what’s going on above. But, down below, the ground welcomes the rain, and it strikes me how much better are our gardens at accepting the vagaries of the weather than their owners. And it’s not just our gardens, but the surrounding landscape which demonstrates a supreme resourcefulness in adapting to conditions; a resourcefulness not always entirely appreciated by the gardener. At least the badgers have stopped digging up the lavender bed in search of juicy earthworms; a new habit they'd developed during the unusually dry September.

This thing – this annoyance we feel during showery weather – comes down to a problem of perception. We consider this weather changeable. But what if it isn’t? We see it shifting back and forth from one state to another. Perhaps instead, it’s in a fixed state of being, and that state is...changeable. If we’re discomforted by the unpredictability of the weather, will we be less so if we predict it will be unpredictable? Rather like the current season, neither quite summer nor yet autumn, we are in transition, somewhere in between, and that is how it is. That, as with most things in life, is how it usually is – somewhere between two things. You’d think we’d get used to it.

Strong winds, sudden downpours and some minor inconvenience with clothing. It’s a small price to pay for the sight of the clouds scudding across the sun and the kind of chill, damp freshness in the air I’ve been longing for all year. And even while these thoughts occur to me, I’m forced to take cover in the land rover from a sudden downpour of particularly biblical fury, rain streaming down my coat and boots and pooling in the footwell. Through the fogged up windscreen, I see a fox loping across the garden, unconcerned, perfectly dressed for the weather. I watch it disappear through the hedgerow into the fields, with something approaching envy.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The national pelargonium collection 2/2

This is the second part of a long blog post. Please click here to read Part 1.

Pelargonium 'Shannon', hybridissed in Califonia by Jay Kapac
Crossing two species results in a species (or primary) hybrid. This category contains two of my absolute favourite pelargoniums, Pelargonium'Shannon', which I’ve waffled on about before (here). It’s quite a relaxed, almost straggly plant, with bright green foliage and small flowers of a colour often described as salmon pink, although I think the pink is a shade or two cooler than that would suggest. The markings in a deeper pink at the base of each petal are quite a feature. A great choice for containers.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The national pelargonium collection 1/2

To Fibrex Nurseries today, the home of a the national pelargonium collection, which I’ve been intending to visit for some time. It could be argued that it’s a bit late in the year to visit a collection comprising largely summer flowering perennials but, like most people, I’m at the mercy of my diary and today was the first opportunity in a long while that I’ve had to make the trip. To tell the truth, it wasn’t a source of bother to me; I’m such an enthusiastic fan of this particular genus that the foliage and the growth habit of the individual specimens promised to hold as much fascination for me as the flowers – more, if I’m honest.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Covered in bees*

The alliterative first line of Keats’ ode To Autumn gets bandied about with predicatable regularity at this time of year. And quite rightly too; it may be bordering upon cliché, but were there a more apt, evocative or economic description of the time of year now being ushered in than “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m sure we’d all be using it. But, for the past week or so, it’s the passage at the end of the first stanza that I keep thinking of, those lines that describe the bees making the absolute most of the late-season flowers, drunk on nectar and basking in the late sun before returning to hives dripping with honey after the summer’s generosity.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The daily barrow

Imagine if your wheelbarrow could talk. What stories would it have to tell? Mine gets thrown about, wheeled up and down planks and onto heaps and bonfires, and filled with everything from tools to compost, large rocks to loads of sand, steaming horse manure to the windblown petals from the rose garden. As my ever-present companion, I think it’s well placed to be able to give a fairly accurate and detailed account of how I go about the daily business of gardening.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Big daisies

Early September; sun-warmed days, cooler nights, and moisty mornings of mists and plants dripping with dew. This is the month when the romantic notion of the gardener you wish to be can collide head-on with the stark reality of the gardener you are. Having occupied myself over the past few months fighting a series of losing battles against foes including greedy molluscs, disappointing compost (I really must sort that out – too much unrotted wood in a lot of the peat free jobbies, locking up all the nitrogen) and a general inability to make the most of limited time, it’s now getting a bit too late in the year for even the most heroic of my efforts to make much difference to this year’s garden. I find myself on the brink of thinking that, with the growth rate now slowing markedly, the most I can hope for is to make the place look a bit tidier and, having concluded that such a dour state of mind is neither helpful nor particularly enjoyable, I opt instead for a course of retail therapy.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


Summer has burned itself out. The cooler weather, arriving suddenly for what we initially took to be a fleetng stay, appears to be in no great hurry to depart, hanging about the place like an unwelcome guest for the summer hols. Across the country central heating thermostats are clicking into life, woodsheds are beeing restocked, and cardies are being retrieved from the winter section of the wardrobe. While it may not yet be autumn, it surely feels nothing like high summer.

With my greenhouse thermometer revealing temperatures dropping daily to below six degrees (August appears to have mistaken itself for October), it’s little wonder that the plants in our gardens are responding. One of the first to be showing signs of the coming season is the spindle, the leaves of which are adopting an autumnal blush with what must be considered unwarranted alacrity by those who remain staunchly opposed to any mention of summer’s end – of whom there appear to be many.

Our native variety, the common spindle (Euonymus europaeus) favours neutral to lime-rich soils, and was until relatively recently a common sight in hedgerows and woodland margins (it was unceremoniously hoiked out along with miles of hedgerow for the dubious offence of harbouring wheat rust spores, along with barberry Berberis vulgaris, also now rarely seen au naturel). Its wood was valued for its toughness, and used for spindles (presumably for machines, rather than bannisters), and reputedly also for toothpicks, although due to its toxicity I am slightly dubious about this often-cited application.

The spindle’s deep green stems with characteristic striations
Winged protruberances on the stem of the native spindle
A small tree or large shrub of about three metres in both height and width, it’s most notable later in the year, at which time you might be enticed to aproach it by the fiery hues of its autumnal foliage. Once in close proximity, you can’t help but notice the fascinating, four lobed fruits, bright pink capsules splitting to reveal a single bright orange seed. During other seasons the plant is less remarkable from a distance, opposite lance shaped leaves (ovate/oval in the books, but rarely so in my experience, at least on the deciduous species) roughly an inch long a similar deep green to the stems, and small, creamy-green, four-petalled flowers in late spring. The stems themselves are characteristic of the genus, often appearing almost square in cross-section due to the presence of hardened tissue which grows laterally along the length. These corky protrusions are particularly pronounced on the winged spindle Euonymus alatus, also known as or burning bush for the richness of its autumn colour. My first encounter with a spindle was with a form of this variety, Euonymus alatus var. apteris, which I came upon in all its late season glory on one visit to the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. On my way to the nuttery, I rounded a corner in at the bottom of the rose garden, and had to stand and gaze a while at this tall, fiery orange sentinel, glowing in the low autumnal sunshine against the dark green of the yew hedge. Quite memorable.

Euonymus alatus foliage in the process of turning
Another favourite is Euonymus 'Red Cascade', typically taller and more tree-like in proportions than the more spreading E. alatus, and with spectacular colouring, if less pronounced ‘wings’.

The four-lobed capsule of Euonymus 'Red Cascade'
How odd to think that the same family includes a whole host of evergreen shrubs, referred to pejoratively by some as ‘car park plants’, but recognised those with more sense and less of a stick-up the-bum as reliable, low maintenance plants which are guaranteed to perform in practically any location. Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' and the larger 'Silver Queen' are green and silver stalwarts, while Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold' introduces warmer tones. You may never believe that these could be relatives to the deciduous shrubs mentioned above – until, that is, you see the flowers and fruit.

For the fruit alone, I think it’s a worthy addition to any garden. The autumn colour of the deciduous varieties should be the clincher. Naysayers might point out that they’re reputed to be a host for the black fly that favour broad beans. So... don’t plant them in a hedge around your veg patch. Chances are, you’ll get the black fly anyway, so sow your beans early, and nip out the young tips. But don’t let this deprive you of a great native garden plant.

All parts of the spindle are toxic for humans to a level of discomfort, and rather more toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Following my nose

A fragrant day today, ending with perhaps the most olfactorily pleasing compost heap I’ve encountered for some time, piled high with cuttings of lavender and spearmint (Mentha spicata) – quite invigorating, as was the thunderstorm that arrived just as I was finishing up. But the day began twenty foot up a ladder, nose pressed into the foliage of a tall hedge of leyland cypress, deeply inhaling the luxuriant scent of the resin which I will shortly need to go and clean from the blades of my tools. Another smell from childhood, this time one I’ve always loved, ever since my old Da planted a leylandii hedge in the front garden of our north London terrace house. My parents moved from that house a decade ago, but thirty years on that hedge is looking better than ever, which just goes to show. Leylandii has a rotten reputation, but it makes a stormingly good hedge – you just need to remember to cut it, preferably twice a year. And that’s all you have to do – I’m not sure what the fuss is about to be honest. True, many neighbourly disputes have arisen over unruly hedges grown enormous (the leyland cypress, Cupressus x leylandii can grow to over 20 metres tall if left untrimmed), but they just need a little care. A hedge is not a fence, you don’t erect it and then ignore it completely. It is collection of trees, living entities, and as such requires some care. Not a lot – just a spot of periodic trimming. Your toenails would grow pretty out of control if you left neglected to clip them for five years.

‘Oh, but leylandii’s so commonplace’, my lecturer would boom across the labs when doing plant idents. ‘If you must have a coniferous hedge, choose something else. Why not...Thuja?’ Why not indeed? Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar if you’re buying a greenhouse or a wardrobe made of the stuff) is another cracking plant, also well suited to hedging. Except it’s twice as expensive, establishes less quickly, and from across the garden I’m not sure you’d really notice the difference in something that’s essentially going to be used as a backdrop. Its crushed foliage smells of pear drops, which may or may not be an advantage over leylandii, according to your taste. But then few people buy this kind of hedge for the purpose of sniffing it.*

All this being said, I don’t have a leylandii hedge in my own garden – we planted a strip of mixed native hedging, and use a block of yew (also native) to partition the garden (not that everything in the garden has to be native – it isn’t – I just liked the idea of tying the garden to the surrounding countryside). Which is all very well, and we’re quite pleased with how things are working, hedge-wise. It just doesn’t smell as good.

*If you are into hedge sniffing, then may I recommend Escallonia? Clip this and you’ll be engulfed in a cloud of spiced orange fumes. Just add red wine, and heat gently. Only put the hedge clippers away first.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Plant fever

Pelargonium 'Mystery'
Could it be the case that, just as a person’s sense of taste changes over the years – the bitterness of coffee and alcohol becoming more appealing – so one’s sense of smell also undergoes a similar transformation with advancing age? I can only speak for myself, but this seems a reasonable hypothesis. As a child I had a particular dislike for the sent of certain leaves – my youthful nose finding tomatoes and zonal pelargoniums (which we called ‘geraniums’) most offensive. Now, I positively look forward to pinching out the side shoots on my tomato plants, releasing tiny clouds of refreshingly astringent perfume as I nip with finger and thumb – and can’t pass a pelargonium without impulsively reaching to squeeze a leaf to similar effect. But I don't grow tomatoes to sniff them – like any sensible person I grow them because a home grown tomato tastes so much better than a shop bought tomato, whilst bestowing upon the grower the gratification of knowing that you’re eating the fruit of a plant you've raised yourself from seed – knowledge which brings satisfaction and smugness in equal measure. As justifications for growing a particular genus go, that’s pretty uncomplicated. My reasons for growing pelargoniums, on the other hand...well, I'm altogether more suspicious of those.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Weather? 'tis nobler.

“You gardeners,” someone chided me good-naturedly on Twitter the other day, “you’re always complaining about the weather!”. Which may be one of the most self-evident statements to have been made upon that platform, or any other for that matter, but nonetheless worthy of examination for all that.

I don’t for a moment doubt the accuracy of my tweeting friend’s observation, but interested as to what lies behind the truth of her comment. Is it that the majority of gardeners of her acquaintance (and mine) are British, and British Gardeners, as a subset of the group known as British, exhibit the most obvious traits peculiar to that set (complaining, and talking about the weather)? Or is it more the case that all gardeners complain – or at least regularly comment upon – the weather, a behaviour which coincidentally happens to correspond to a national pastime in one particular part of the world? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Perhaps I’ll be lambasted* for this but I’ll hazard a guess that gardeners in all locations whinge about the weather – we might have good cause in England to kvetch over the fickle nature of the elements, whereas while gardeners in California or Seattle might have more predictable conditions to deal with, I bet they complain about them just as much as we do here.

Set Theory as applied to whinging-about-the-weather

And is it any wonder? Of course it isn’t. We have every right to bore people rigid talking about the weather. We spend far more time out in it than the majority of folk (excluding shepherds, fishermen and navvies – not an exhaustive list), experiencing its changing moods first hand, rather than observing its effects at one remove through double-glazed windows, or from behind the windshield of a car. Those of us who have elected to spend more of our time with plants than with people get the weather thrown in with the deal – the Elements Experience as a bonus package, no two days quite the same, and guaranteed to keep you on your toes. It's part of the joy of working outside (and yes, working in a polytunnel most definitely counts as ‘working outside’), and was one of the factors that attracted me to horticulture in the first place. In a society where we seem to be doing our utmost to build the natural world out of our everyday existence, I count it as a privilege that my place of work sees me baked by the sun, buffeted by the wind or soaked to the skin on a regular basis.

Does this mean I don’t complain? Of course not! Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s a privilege – notably more so in my case when working beneath a relentless summer’s sun than when my boots are filling with water – but that doesn’t make it any less true. Whatever the weather has thrown at me, I can honestly say I have never once wished to be back behind a desk in an office. When it gets really bad, a shed will do.

* a process which I don’t quite understand but have always imagined has something to do with being basted along with lamb, which sounds quite pleasant, if a little warm.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

In the pink

I always think of July as the month where hotter colours start to take over the garden – and this year, it looks like the temperatures are following suit as proper summer weather arrives. But while scarlet zonal pelargoniums and crocosmias are asserting themselves in some areas, I’m easing myself away from the blues, whites and creams of the spring garden via a gentle transition through shades of pink.

To me there are few sights finer than a drift of foxgloves, swaying ever so slightly in the breeze. They multiply readily from seed, which is produced in prodigious quantity, each dried capsule containing hundreds of tiny seeds. Rosettes of furry, broad leaves will form this year, next year, tall spikes of the familiar flowers. Most foxgloves are now browning as the seeds mature and the capsules swell, but a precious few are still in flower. Catch them while you can, and if you’re too late, wave snip off a crispy stem when the pods have split and wave it around under some trees where you’d like a colony to establish. Naturally, they’re rather poisonous.

We used to call fuchsias ‘dancing dollies’ when I grew up, though I’ve no idea how widespread that nickname is. They’re a great, colourful staple of the garden throughout summer and into the autumn, with such variety of colour and habit that there’s bound to be one for any situation, whether you want them trailing from baskets, grown as lollipop-headed standards, or as shrubs in the border. The petals and berries are edible too.

Lacecap hydrangeas are beautiful plants, and perhaps rather more subtle than their mop head cousins. Although I love them both equally, perhaps this makes the lacecaps slightly more versatile in the garden, as the form of the flower is more delicate and less attention seeking. Beautiful, nonetheless. This pink one is in the garden of a client, cultivar detail lost. Perhaps it’s ‘Kardinal’, which can vary in colour from pink through red to reddish mauve depending on the acidity of the soil.

I always used to get Lychnis coronaria – Rose campion – confused with Stachys byzantia, which has similarly furry silver-grey leaves, although the flowers are quite different – a single, deep pink (or white) flower for Lychnis, a short spike of mauve flowers on the Stachys. Both can establish colonies quickly, stachys favouring layering with its lanky stems, while the Rose campion prefers to seed itself about. A wonderful contrast between the cool hues of the foliage and the zingy magenta of the flowers.

What could be pinker than a double flowered pink? Again that contrast between cool, grey-blue foliage and the flower colour, more subtle this time, but just as attractive. Pinks have a wonderful perfume; spicy, almost clove-like.

I have a love-hate relationship with potentillas. The genus has produced some of the most boring and annoying weeds – chief among them creeping cinquefoil – and many of the herbaceous plants flop about with a vengeance, requiring ingenious supports. Some of the flowers, though, are fantastic. The flower of Potentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmott’ here, strawberry like foliage out of shot.

I’m starting to see a point to patio roses – or at least, small roses that can be planted at the front of a border, to provide a frothy mass of long lasting colour. As long as they’re disease resistant – can’t be doing with all that spraying and black-spot riddled foliage looks awful. For some reason, it’s even more annoying on a small leaved plant. The David Austin rose ‘Rosemoor’ is a double flowered repeat flowering rose, with a good scent.

Sempervivum’s have the most amazing flowers. These look like they’ve been made from icing, intricately patterned and garnished with silver hundreds and thousands. Who’d expect such delicacy from these humble house leeks?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

RHS Hampton Court, 2014

Three hours is no time at all to do justice to an RHS flower show, yet that was all the time I had available this week as I arrived at Hampton Court. Three hours to lose myself in the delights of the Floral Marquee, to visit, photograph and ponder each of the show gardens and to try to avoid my habitual Hampton Court behaviour of getting lost and missing out an entire section. A fool’s errand, and none better qualified to attempt it than I.

The first casualty of my ridiculous schedule was the Floral Marquee, where I could happily have spent the entire day. As it was, I barely managed a couple of laps – having time to congratulate the very splendid Fibrex Nurseries for another double gold medal for their fabulous ferns and pelargoniums, all of which I wanted to buy, and many of which I’m sure I shall. There’s a mixture of fear and excitement when you find people who make a living out of tending, nurturing and selling the things which you crave. Enablers.

Pelargonium sidoides, stunning, delicate, one of my absolute favourites 
Just one of the ferns on my wishlist at Fibrex Nurseries
I was also lured by the stand of Trecanna Nursery from Cornwall, who specialise in hardier South African plants – I do love my crocosmias, and they have them aplenty.

The photo really doesn’t do justice to these burnt orange shades
Sadly, a decision had to be made – spend the rest of my allotted time dribbling over other people’s plants, or get out and see the gardens. With something of a wrench, I dragged myself outside to pound the walkways which criss-cross the grounds, propelling myself from the tent into a cacophony of clattering plant trolleys under a brooding sky.

Firstly, just to get them out the way, some of the less successful aspects. I really don’t like to linger on the bad points but there were a few, and blimey, there were some rough edges this year, notably a yew hedge which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be formal or unkempt, and a mass of Stipa tenuisima which had a bad case of bed hair – obviously, Stipa ten can do this, but if you’re going to use it as a key plant, it helps to get it right. Both of these mishaps were in the Your Garden, Your Budget section – formerly the Low Budget, High Impact gardens – but this area also hosted several of my favourite gardens, of which more later.

‘Plastic’ planting – a personal bugbear of mine – was also in evidence in places here as it was in Chelsea. I think it’s excusable on the equipment and furniture stands, although to be fair much of the planting around these is done with pleasing subtlety and complexity. I’ve been trying to identify just what it is that makes me look at a show garden and think, “Hmm. Plastic”. They all have in common a slightly sterile quality – too-perfect foliage – hedges of box and other evergreens with thick, waxy leaf cuticles, plants that look like they’ve just been popped into the ground rather than grown there, earth closing cleanly around the stems with nary a sign of disruption. Of course the plants have just been popped into the ground, but unless you’re creating a bedding scheme – which has its own rules – there’s an illusion that needs to be maintained with a show garden, and some artful scuffing up in places can go a long way.

Planted, or plonked?
I realise that in the same breath I’m complaining about the presence of rough edges as well as the lack of them, but it’s all about the context; in one situation it can suggest a slapdash approach, in other it indicates a certain finesse and accomplishment. I think another common factor with this style concerns the use of colour – planting is often in blocks of the same shade, rather like bedding planting, but with a different selection of plants – cottage garden bulbs and perennials rather than begonias and marigolds. So, rather than a Gertrude Jekyll effect, the impression is vaguely modernist, but with all the straight lines blurred – like a Mondrian left out in the rain. This isn’t a bad thing – it didn’t stop Luciano Giubbilei’s garden winning Best in Show at Chelsea this year – it’s just something I don’t find particularly pleasing or, if I’m honest, subtle. I’m aware though that many people who like a certain sense of order and control might find this style particularly appealing, and I began to wonder if it’s in fact an inescapable approach to the soft landscaping with a certain style of slick, contemporary garden design.

And then I saw this (below) – which I rather liked – and realised it isn’t, as this garden manages to maintain its crisp edges and lines, clear space and sense of contemporary chic, whilst at the same time allowing the planting to portray a vibrant community of plants with both energy and dynamism. I know, I know... it’s just a different style, not necessarily a better one. But I think it’s a more nuanced one, a more interesting one. And I think it’s better.

Picking nits, that central upright on the pergola makes this area really crowded
Then there was the landform area. I’m a big fan of earthworks and landforms, as seen on a large scale in the landscape at Maiden Castle in Dorset or Cissbury Ring in Sussex, and also in the work of Charles Jencks and Kim Wilkie, for example. So I was excited to hear that this aspect of landscape design would be celebrated Hampton Court this year. That said, I’m not convinced the have-a-go, chuck-it-together-in-a-couple-of-days approach really did justice to a practice that lies somewhere between landscaping and sculpture, and one which resonates through the history of the British countryside. It might have been more enlightening to have had one clearly thought out and well-executed example to illustrate how beautiful these forms can be. So on balance, this was a fun area, albeit one with an air of missed opportunity about it.

Enough with the whinging, and on with some of the gardens which I enjoyed.

The Essence of Australia Garden by Jim Fogarty was a knockout garden on the main drag. Forests of blue eucalyptus, grevillia and Ozothamnus erupting from the red earth, bubbling billabongs, a serpentine deck and boulders evocative of a landscape quite different to the rolling hills of Kent that I’m used to. I was particularly keen on the dwarf kangaroo paw, Anigozanthos (yellowish plant just above the deck in the second photo).

I respond well to a garden that provides an immersive experience, and if a show garden can draw you in while you're standing outside of it in the middle of a noisy crowd, then it’s definitely achieved this. I certainly felt this with the Forgotten Folly garden by Lynn Riches and Mark Lippiatt, a shady space where a dilapidated stone structure, stone walls and iron railings were being slowly reclaimed by nature, with foxgloves, scabious, a weeping birch and a young Taxodium distichum, the swamp cypress. There was a shady, damp spot with ferns, a gunnera and white astilbes, and a touch I particularly liked was a little river of ajuga running down between stone blocks. I stood and gazed for some time.

I though that the NSPCC Legacy Garden by Adam Woolcott and Jonathan Smith was very well realised, with some excellent detailing, historically accurate planting and touching props. But the whole journey-through-time concept doesn’t really work for me as a concept – I find it too self-conscious, yet at the same time constantly referring to something outside of itself which prevents you from being drawn into it. I suppose I want my gardens to be more installation than exhibit.

Transitioning from mid 20th century (left) to 70s (right) at this point
Community gardening in its many guises is a growing phenomenon that's becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and it was good to see this celebrated in the garden designed by Jeni Cairns and Sophie Antonelli, A Space to Connect and Grow. Here they have created a versatile space relying heavily on upcycled materials – industrial looking metalwork, a pergola made from scaffolding boards and poles, a sculptural feature constructed with sawn down oil drums and bicycle wheels, with artwork jostling side-by-side with insect hotels and planters. As well as fulfilling requirements for food production, wildlife conservation, and social gatherings, there’s a performance area too, which was being used to great effect with some very chilled out live music at the time I visited. The garden is an exciting example of what can be achieved through a collaborative project, in this case between the designers, the arts organisation Metal, and the community growing group The Green Backyard. I’m looking forward to seeing how the garden works for the community when it’s taken back home to Peterborough after the show.

Alexandra Froggatt has created a serenely tranquil space with her Garden of Solitude. Quite possibly this is the garden that will lodge most in my memory from this year’s show. It’s a white garden, but not in a Sissinghurst way. There’s a cool, harmonious blend between the limewashed shades of upcycled timber used for the hard landscaping (pergola, deck, walls as well as seating and sculptural elements) and the soft, grey greens of the woodland planting, with a wonderful textured wall of Carex 'Frosted Curls'. The waterfall feature provided a strong ambient soundtrack at a perfect volume and intensity – loud enough to drown out the noises of the city, but still mellow and not so intrusive that you couldn’t hold a hushed conversation. In all an idyllic, peaceful retreat. I loved it.

How did I manage with my mission? True to form, I did get lost, and I did miss out at least two gardens. But not bad for three hours.

More photographs can be seen in the Facebook gallery here.