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.