Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Pot shopping and garden gawping

A well made terracotta pot is a thing worthy of admiration in its own right. That such an object can itself be filled with the choicest specimens of the plant kingdom in an association of synergistic scrumminess* is a phenomenon for which we can all be truly grateful. Being a firm believer of the verisimilitude of the foregoing, it was with some excitement that I discovered that Whichford Pottery were due to make a trip to a spring fair at Loseley Park in Surrey at the weekend; still just over an hour away, being in the same neck of the woods though a little further on than Wisley, but considerably less effort to get to than the pottery itself in Warwickshire.

Having negotiated the M25, and then the quagmire of a field being used for the car park (“there’s some slight surface mud”, warned the steward at the entrance – my, how we laughed), we found that the Whichford folks had taken over the walled courtyard before the entrance, and so we dashed straight in to see if anything was left. Alas, all the seconds had been snapped up, but I hadn’t really come for those. I was after some straightforward, solid, wide-based pots, either from their Wisley or Buxus pot range, and we managed to lay claim to three buxus pots, a delightful small pot with a bee design it, and a seed pan. While paying for them, we noticed that our crafty Whichford friends had brought with them an assortment of ceramics from the shop, and we somehow managed to add five earthenware coffee mugs to our haul. We were pretty close to buying a larger pot from the new Shakespeare range, but since we couldn't agree on Love’s Labours Lost or Cymbeline, that will have to wait for another day. And perhaps a trip to Warwickshire, which will then give me an excuse to visit Fibrex Nurseries in Stratford and drool over their pelargoniums.

Pots paid for and left at the till, we had already achieved the purpose of our visit but, the weather having by now cleared, we wanted to pop our heads into the garden (via, of course, the gift shop for essential ice cream-based sustenance). The gardens don’t officially open until the first weekend in May, so the Spring Fair attendees were being treated to a preview. I was trying out a new camera lens, and so I confess to not wandering around the garden in an analytical frame of mind, content to let the experience of the place wash over me. This is after all my preferred mode when visiting a garden for the first time. That said, the impression I gained was very positive. Two and a half acres of walled garden, with tightly clipped box and yew, fruit trees, pleached hedging, razor sharp edges, well-managed compacted gravel paths and colours so vibrant they burst through the camera’s lens – the bright greens of the fresh growth on the box, chartreuse euphorbias, clouds of blue forget-me-nots, tulips in shades of oranges and reds. Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but the combination of formality and joyful exuberance very much to mine (and, rather uncomfortably, bang on trend if what I’ve seen so far of Chelsea 2014 is anything to go by). I’m looking forward to coming back and giving the garden the attention it deserves.

* for examples of synergistic scrumminess, visit the blog of Whichford’s Head Gardener, Harriet Rycroft, at whichfordpottery.com/main/potting-up/. Or better still, pop in to the pottery to see the pots and the plantings in all their glory.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Notes from the greenhouse

Mission Control has been looking a little sorry for itself of late. A wet winter and a less than watertight structure have taken their toll on the end of the greenhouse where I station myself to sow seeds, pot on, check the temperature, listen to the radio and drink tea (although the last two activities invariably occur wherever I find myself in the garden). This isn’t to say I’ve not been using it – far from it – but ‘making do’ has very much been the order of the day, as I’ve watched with a growing consciousness of my own inadequacy the seemingly endless stream of tweets testifying to the ruthless efficiency of my gardening friends, all of whom have appear to have cleaned, repaired and rearranged their greenhouses in good time over winter in preparation for the new season. Social media is wonderful for providing support and encouragement, particularly I’ve found in the gardening world. Just sometimes, it reminds me that I’m still very much a journeyman at this game.

My greenhouse, of course, couldn’t agree more. The leaky roof has decided that the main cascade is shown to its greatest advantage when falling directly over the potting bench, the plywood surface of which became badly waterstained, the grain not so much raised as mountainous. The max/min/in/out thermometer has been staring at me blankly for weeks, due in part to the absence of a sensible battery compartment, necessitating the irksome removal of six fiddly screws and a rubber gasket just to discover what manner of exhausted power source lurks within. It doesn't sound like much of an obstacle to overcome, but by the time I’ve made the short journey along the wavy grass path back to the house, I've passed several other more pressing things-which-need-doing along the way, and all thoughts of batteries and screwdrivers have been forgotten.

Clearly some TLC was in order, and so making the most of the extra hours of light we’re now enjoying, the potting bench has now had a rub down and several fresh coats of Briwax, which ought to see it through for a while longer. The thermometer is restored to an operational state (triple A cells in there, who’d have thought? I was expecting those annoying watch batteries), and I’ve built a new shelf above the bench for essentials so I can keep the working surface clear. Suddenly, it feels like a much more efficient operation.

I’ve also got a plan to add in a lower level of staging to create a third tier – there won’t be the height for anything taller than moderately sized seedlings, but then there won’t be the light levels for anything that’s exhausted its onboard store of energy, and by the time the first pairs of true leaves are unfurled and seeking out the sun I’ll be needing to pot them on anyway. It will just give me an extra (slight) defence from the mollusc army, though it is tempting to clad the vertical surfaces in copper. Now there’s a thought... but perhaps I’m getting carried away.

If the weekend stays sufficiently dry, I shall attack the roof seam with some silicone, a slightly fiddly process as I need to do this from the outside rather than from below to prevent the water from gathering between the roof timbers and causing them to rot. I’d rather be sowing seeds.

Whats growing in the greenhouse this month

Sweet peas in root trainers. Sown these into Carbon Gold GroChar seed compost, which I think might have been a bad idea due to the length of time they’ll be in there –they’re beginning to show signs of nutrient deficiency. Silly me; I’ve given them a shot or two of Maxicrop seaweed-based plant tonic and will get them into the ground in a few days.

Tomatoes in modules – these need potting on now. A snail got up onto the staging and munched all the 'Gardeners Delight'. Only one of the measley eight-in-a-packet 'Red Robin' have germinated (a new variety for containers), so I’d better look after this. All the 'Moneymaker' look good.

Cleomes – germination rate rather good, and potted on now into 9cm square pots. These were also looking a bit yellow (also sown in GroChar seed compost. I think it might only be good if you’re sowing into seed trays and pricking out fairly swiftly after germination, I tend to sow into modules and so need more food for the seedling as it’ll be in there for a while. I will stick with the GroChar but use sieved multi-purpose I think).

Butternut squash and courgettes – the first signs of life just showing, sown straight into multi-purpose in 9cm pots.

Hanging basket of petunias waiting to go out the front of the house, for some retro gardening cool!

A knackered looking melianthus in a 2 litre pot, a favourite plant I was intending to plant out till I discovered its toxicity to dogs.

Not to mention the posh pelargoniums, astilbes and misc cuttings/splittings, which all need some attention.

The cosmos will get sown today. Or maybe tomorrow.

What’s in yours? Do leave a comment, or send me a tweet!

If he’s not going to hurry up in there, he could at least let me in to munch on the astilbes

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Inner Temple Gardens

To London on a grey and rainy day, to visit gardens of the Inner Temple. These are found on the north bank of the Thames, midway between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, and occupy about five acres of that strip of land between Fleet Street and the river.

The walk from Charing Cross station allowed me to revisit a favourite old haunt, the Victoria Embankment Gardens, where I’ve whiled away many a happy lunch time reading a book or just strolling beneath the canopy of the enormous London plane trees (Platanus x hispanica). Before I knew anything about gardening, I remember marvelling at their colourful, flaking bark in camouflage shades, hung in winter with brown seed balls like Christmas decorations, which disintegrate in spring to release a blizzard of parachuting seeds. I’m sure that it was also here that I encountered my first fatsia – there are some mature species of impressive size by the gates to Villiers Street – impressed not only by the handsome foliage but also by the astonishing white inflorescences, spherical umbels on similarly blanched pedicels. I remember escaping here from my office in the middle of one particularly fraught project, watching the gardeners lay out the bedding schemes with no little envy, thinking to myself; ‘gardeners must exist in an entirely stress-free world. You can’t exactly shout at a bulb to come up any faster than it wants’ I may have been on to something – while I don’t think any occupation is stress-free, or indeed should be, it’s certainly a more positive, constructive type of stress I feel now than in those suited and booted years in the air conditioned offices of an oil company.

I was glad to see the gardens here in such excellent condition, with much evidence of restorative work and even some new hard landscaping in the form a curved stone wall behind Steell’s sulpture of Robbie Burns. Why it is I gain so much pleasure from the bedding schemes here, when normally the very notion of them fills me with horror, I have yet to work out, but the sight of white tulips in a sea of pink myosotis was a cheering prospect in the afternoon drizzle, albeit one that reminded me of coconut ice. Crown imperials peaked out from more tropical plantings, and the plane trees have yet to release their seeds in earnest, though the brace of gardeners with backpack blowers keeping the paths immaculate suggested that they might be about to start.

At a leisurely pace the walk lasts about ten minutes, taking you under Waterloo Bridge, along the front of Somerset House and past Temple tube station, and the smaller sections of the embankment gardens. One of the four Inns of Court (the others being Middle Temple, Lincolns Inn and Grays Inn), the Inner Temple has existed since the fourteenth century, but evidence of a garden on this site dates back some two hundred years before then. The present gardens were laid out in the seventeenth century, with significant changes to accommodate contemporary fashion in the 1700s, but the enlargement of the site due to the construction of the embankment in the nineteenth century resulted in the amended layout which forms the basis of the gardens today. What follows here are my first thoughts and impressions of the gardens, which I look forward to researching in more detail and indeed visiting again in the near future.

Entering through the iron gates on Crown Office Row and descending semi-circular steps to the upper level of this sloping site, you are faced with three acres of lawn, bounded top and sides by the Temple buildings, and at the bottom by the embankment and river beyond. A row of benches lines the upper path, bisected by the central axis running from the gates, through the eighteenth century sundial, and down the steps which lead from the upper level to the lawn, at which point, rather oddly, the central axis disappears in a sea of green turf. Without wishing here to get into the discussion of where a park ends and a garden begins, there are definitely elements of park here, notably the expanse of lawn, the selection of mature specimen trees, and perhaps also the relative dearth of formal elements, those that exist (the paths, the steps) being pushed out to the boundaries. Given the purpose of these gardens, its park-ness is entirely appropriate, and had I been visiting on a sunny day perhaps a wander across the lawns with my lunch would have been a perfect way to spend an hour or so. On a rainy day in April, I  found myself wanting a big path down the middle, and something to continue the formality created at the entrance down through the site to the river. As it was, I stuck to the path and skirted the edges.

And as I circled the space via its peripheral edge, my gaze was held in the main by the circular fountain area. Of all the structural elements, this is the one which I found hardest to reconcile with the rest of the garden. Marooned in the lawn, it’s eccentrically off centre in a setting which calls either for formality or a purposeful rejection of the same, without quite gathering the confidence to be stridently informal. In addition, I think that it might be too small for the space – it seems a little apologetic, neither classically proportioned nor vulgar in its enormity, but too large and ill-sited to be quaint. My hope is that the planting will in time soften those aspects of the fountain that I find jarring – it doesn’t as yet, perhaps not helped by the mismatched hard landscaping materials – modern red brickwork, pale stone flags, blue-grey zinc planters with wooden benches. I think my attention was so drawn to this area I missed some of the detail in the planting by my feet, particularly on the broad walk that runs along the bottom of the site, bounded on both sides rows of huge London plane trees underplanted with, I think, liriope. I shall visit again to give this area the attention it deserves.

Reading about the complex history of the gardens*, it becomes evident why it feels as if there is no overarching plan to their layout – there hasn’t been one, at least not for several centuries and certainly not for the garden in its present form, and so perhaps a piecemeal approach to the design is understandable. The broad walk was laid out in the nineteenth century, the high border has come, gone, and come again, the steps that go nowhere were added in the sixties, and the combined efforts of fire, plague, Victorian engineering and two world wars have taken their toll.

That said, none of these comments on the layout and structural elements should in any way detract from what the head gardener and her team are managing to achieve here. Their skill and dedication is evident in so many areas, from the long herbaceous border running along the very top – packed so tightly I’d have a job insinuating a credit card between the plants, let alone my own sturdy, lumpen-footed frame – to the artfully arranged display of pots by the greenhouse, and the lush, shade tolerant plantings in the ‘woodland area’, where paeonies jostle with ferns, dicentra/lamprocapnos (I’m still getting the hang of that one!) and astilbes. There's a new planting of ferns around the base of the old black walnut tree – pleasingly a thick bark mulch path had been laid here encouraging you to step off the path and walk among the plants. I had the distinct impression that the new planting area had encroached some way into the turf – could it be that the gardeners are putting in place the initial phase of a stealthy coup to claim space from the tyranny of the lawn? I rather hope so.

The presence of the gardeners was palpable, even while they themselves appeared to have been spirited away. I passed two wheel-barrows clearly abandoned mid-task, one by an obviously well tended working seed bed, and another on the other side of the gardens, where an invisible horticulturalist had evidently been in the process of weaving intricate hazel supports for the paeonies. It was, after all, lunch time (the gardens are only open to the public from 12.30pm – 3pm), and a gardener has to eat.

Perhaps there's something particularly dynamic about a place where the gardeners are necessarily battling against less than ideal design – after all, isn't that what many of us do every day? Here, it clearly draws out a certain flair and panache that makes this space an interesting one in which to linger. Now, a few days after my first visit, the guidebook has arrived in the post, and I feel I’ve at least begun to get the lie of the land. I’m looking forward to my next trip to the Inner Temple Gardens – I have a suspicion it won’t be long before I’m back.

* In The Great Garden: a History of the Inner Temple Garden from the 12th to the 21st Century, Hilary Hale, The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple 2010.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Spring green

The garden astoundingly fresh today, all around that vibrant, luminous spring green that bursts upon your vision and fills you with an extra dose of life. All the natural high you could ask for.

In the woodland garden, sticky bud scales on the horse chestnut have parted to reveal new leaves in the process of unfurling. Yet to be raised into their final orientation, they hang drooping from slackened ribs like the infant wings of some freshly hatched dragon.

You can almost hear the sap pumping through the vascular system of the garden. Even as you look, it seems to be spreading through these veins of the russet epimedium leaves.

Hellebores are promiscuous things when happy, and they love this dappled shade. Ovaries swelling with their precious cargo, some manage a novice-like air of serene piety, while others just look fit to burst.

And out in the orchard, the snakes head fritillaries are having a field day, offering up a variation on a green, with their more glaucous shades perfectly offsetting the mottled pinks and plums of the flowers. What a day.