Thursday, 21 August 2014

Trial, Corruption and A Few Good Plants

Gardeners are an optimistic bunch. If a crop or plant doesn't succeed in one growing season, we reason that we can always try again next year. Eventually, after another year (or years if stubbornness and tenacity are combined with our natural gardeners' optimism), we might decide to move on and when we do there is usually something new, more vigorous, sweeter, higher yielding, more floriferous, taller or more compact to try, all thanks to the huge amount of work involved in breeding, selecting and trialling plants.  

I had the immense pleasure of touring the Thompson and Morgan trial site last week. The remnants of Hurricane Bertha had swept across this secret location the day before and threw hail and thunder at us while we were there, yet the Delphinium looked splendid. These glorious Delphinium are from Terry Dowdeswell in New Zealand and they are strong growing, blackspot resistant and have well-spaced flowers. 

The site is home to an extensive collection of plants being trialled in containers. These include shrubs such as Buddleja 'Buzz' and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Sundae Fraise’ which look great in pots. Needless to say, this is a popular spot with butterflies.

I love Limonium vulgare. We see it growing in the dunes on the beaches in Norfolk and I grow it in the farmhouse borders. The problem for me is that it is so insignificant in the garden setting that it is easy to overlook. Limonium ‘Blue Velvet’ has none of these shrinking violet tendencies. It is beefy without looking as if it is pumped up with steroids and although it is a good house plant, it looks wonderful outdoors. I sincerely hope it makes it through the trials as it has been catapulted to the top of my wish list. 

The container plants at the trial site are given a liquid feed every other day. At the other extreme, those growing in the field are watered when they are planted and then left very much to their own devices. The field, with its rows of crops and flowers battling with the elements is more akin to the growing conditions in my garden, so naturally I was keen to discover how the plants there fared. The truth is that not all of them are happy, which is just as it should be, otherwise how would we gauge any improvements?

I am particularly partial to pea tips, so I would normally look upon a pea trial as a potential grazing opportunity, but since most of the peas were mildew-ridden, I was saved the embarrassment of being caught eating the trial. I wouldn't have minded some of ‘Terrain’ though, it stood out like a beacon of health in a swamp of mildew. The contrast between the plants was astonishing. 

Strangely enough, an ornamental carrot really got me drooling. The frothy burgundy flowers of Daucus carota ‘Dara’ added that intriguing combination of darkness of colour and lightness in form to the border.  Although it is ornamental it produces a white edible root, but since it is a carrot, the flowers ought to be attractive to pollinators so despite my unseemly drooling, I won't be pulling up the roots for lunch.

A plant which is definitely great for pollinators is Ageratum. I have spent the past few years feeling guilty that I don’t grow it as I sow only larger annuals. Ageratum houstonianum ‘Timeless Mixed’ which is new for 2015, is a taller version which means that I will be re-introducing Ageratum to my garden next year. It also makes a good cut flower, which will doubtless continue the Ageratum cycle of guilt when I steal stems from the pollinators to pop in a vase. 

On a happier note, Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cupcakes’ is simply beautiful. Even a cake-shy coeliac like me will want to see these cupcakes in the garden in 2016. It is just a pity we will have to wait for so long. 

In the meantime, there are always tomatoes. In a blind taste test of five varieties, ‘sweet aperitif’ came out tops for me. It will certainly be making an appearance on my seed wish list for 2015.

During the evening after the tour, it became apparent that my camera and computer were no longer happy to communicate with one another. My camera card was corrupt and my lap top was having none of it, so I was left pictureless. My thanks go to Thompson and Morgan for supplying the wonderful photos in this post. Thank you too to Michael Perry, Kris Collins and Hannah Ashwell for a fascinating tour coupled with timely cups of tea and the sweetest of pink blueberries to nibble on. 

If you want to know more about Thompson and Morgan, they are at:

If you want to read more about the day:

Friday, 27 June 2014

Dame Judi Dench and the Great Garden Conundrum

When is a garden not a garden? It might sound like the set-up to a very bad joke, but it is a question I have been chewing over ever since I decided to undertake a major overhaul of my compacted soil by hand (a tiring and tedious task which gives me biceps of iron and too much time to think). Usually boredom costs the earth because I have a tendency to daydream and my reveries are inevitably expensive. This time though, I haven't had a chance to ponder ideas of massive mortgage-sized proportions and for this we must thank Dame Judi Dench. 

I took the photo above in Norwich. Is it a garden? It looks and smells like one, but if you peer beyond the carefully crafted borders and behind the willow hurdles you will glimpse reality.

It is a film set. The lawns in the Norwich Cathedral Cloisters were remodelled for Tulip Fever with Dame Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz and Cara Delevingne. So is this a garden? Many of us grow plants in pots. Often these plants are temporarily sited and were we to suffer from indecision and a surplus of spare time, they could be moved every day of the year. So is a container garden a garden? How different are the temporary plant arrangements in the Cathedral Cloisters from those pots of half-hardy annuals we plop into borders to plug a gap?

It is intriguing to experience the effect that a garden/film set can have on a place. Certainly the Cloisters felt more romantic, which is just as well since Tulip Fever is a romance. It is set in the seventeenth century, so leaf blowers are out and draw-droppingly beautiful props are in.   

Isn't it strange how some gardening paraphernalia is a delight? Lengths of hosepipe hissing hither and thither do not fill my heart with joy. The number of Chelsea Flower Show gardens with hosepipes strewn across them this year was shocking. Tickets aren’t cheap and visitors deserve better. Yes, I know plants need water, but a few years ago, when I was allowed entry prior to opening, I saw gardens being watered before the paying public arrived.  

I do not have a problem with the act of watering plants during the show. A person with a watering can constitutes the ever-delightful gardener gardening which viewing gardeners love to see. It is less intrusive as the person will be out of the picture in under a minute and it is encouraging to see a designer taking care of the plants. Here, Luciano Giubbilei with his watering can and a cloth for spillages gives his lupins a drink in his gold medal-winning, Best in Show garden. He really did mop up after himself, taking garden care to a new level (if indeed a show garden is in fact a garden). 

Which brings me back to my original question. Naturally, I sought help from The Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t want to bore you with long definitions, so you will doubtless be relieved to learn that The OED defines a garden as "A piece of ground adjoining a house, used for growing flowers, fruit, or vegetables."
Brilliant! So if that area in front of your house, commonly known as your front garden, is laid to lawn with the occasional tree, it is not a garden since trees and lawns have no part to play in The OED’s definition! Strangely enough, the Tulip Fever set fulfils more of The OED's requirements of a garden than the tree/lawn combination. I wish the people at The Oxford English Dictionary would pull their fingers out and find us a decent definition of a garden to get our teeth into. In the meantime, I am going to chew up the noun, embrace the verb and get out into this...

Is it a garden? It has a handful of flowers, fruit and veg and adjoins a house, so according to The OED it is! Plenty of words spring to mind when I look at it, but garden isn't one of them. It's time I got back to digging out the claypan from hell and started daydreaming...

Friday, 13 June 2014

Garden Rebels

When I was a teenager, a boy told me that I was a rebel. I must have been doing something wondrously hair-raising at the time, like playing Karate Champ under the influence of half a bar of chocolate and a bag of chewy sweets, but the words struck a chord. I rather fancied myself as a rebel in spite of a gaping absence of anything to actually rebel against. If only I had gardened in my teens, I would have found conventions aplenty against which to mount a rebellion.

I have just moved into a new office and with me came 200 or so precious gardening books. As I lovingly arranged them on shelves, I reread excerpts (the probable cause of my lack of blog posts of late) and realised how laden with rules these tomes are; and what are rules for? Exactly. 

Of course, any act of rebellion against conventional wisdom has to be well thought through. It would be folly to fly in the face of centuries of experience without knowledge. Leaves might yellow and plants could die, or at the other extreme, invasive species might take over and run amok through our borders and beyond. But if we intelligently question accepted wisdom, we stand a chance of experiencing the wonderfully exhilarating buzz of rebellion whenever we veer away from best practice (provided that everything goes swimmingly).  

Gardeners are a rebellious bunch. Just think of Christopher Lloyd’s use of colour at Great Dixter or the green walls we see adorning the sides of shops and hotels. This fascination with questioning best practice or fine taste can result in exciting strides away from convention and is one of the reasons why gardening can be so interesting. If we were to garden for a hundred years, we would still not know everything and if we did, some adventurous gardener would soon break with tradition and we would have to reconsider what we thought we knew. 

Until recently, we were advised to place broken crocks at the bottom of our plant pots. Then those rebels at Which? Gardening questioned our plant pot heritage and trialled plants with and without crocks in their pots and guess what? Nothing terrible happened to their Million Bells Trailing Yellow plants without those magical crocks and to cut a long scientific story short, we are now advised not to pop crocks in pots. 

This places the rebels in the gardening community uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma. It is all very well to say that no crocks is the new crocks, but in order to rebel, clarity is required. How can we fly in the face of convention when convention keeps changing its face? On a selfish note, I have no issues with crocks since I have used recycled polystyrene in pots for years. It may do little for my perched water table, but I like it because it is light and it fills big containers cheaply. I see no reason to change, which is potentially a problem in itself. Is this rebellion or a worrying new development? Perhaps I am not a rebel after all; I may simply have Belligerent Old Gardener Syndrome (BOGS). 

P.S. It is always exciting to learn about new ideas and I’m really interested to hear about how you break with gardening conventions. You never know, you may be saving a fellow gardener from BOGS.
We are seeing so many bees this summer! All the photos in this post were taken in the farmhouse garden where Geranium, Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum', Knautia macedonica and even fading Allium hollandicum 'Purple Sensation' flowers are top bee magnets.  

Thursday, 17 April 2014

I Wish I Could Be Like Monty Don

As sure as night follows day, the asparagus knife will go missing just as those succulent shoots are ready for harvesting. It spends much of its life lurking in the shed, making all who enter feel miserable about its lack of use and the associated lack of asparagus, then as soon as the cropping season is upon us, the knife goes AWOL. At this point, I ought to insert a photo of asparagus peeping enticingly through the soil, but having harvested it with a kitchen knife (again) and devoured it with the Easter egg hunt (again), you will have to make do with a quince. 

The Orchard at Le Grys Farm
I have a similar problem with seeds which should be sown in April (no, I don't eat them too). I spend the entire month of March looking at them and virtuously resisting the urge to sow them, then as soon as we hit April, all the packets of seeds go on a merry jaunt with the asparagus knife. This year, after two weeks of hide and seek, I have finally conceded defeat and am off to purchase new seeds today (along with another Easter egg hunt), after which the old seeds will leap out from behind a cushion or some other seed-concealing home furnishing, giggling wildly at my hapless attempts at finding them and squealing, “we were here all the time!”

'Stella' Cherry Blossom 
I know everything has its place, but herding it into its home can be a monumental effort involving massive quantities of self-restraint (a quality I appear to have mislaid along with the asparagus knife). I have seed containers arranged by the month à la Sarah Raven, but brand new shiny seed packets need to be read, admired, shuffled and chewed over, not filed away sensibly where I can actually find them. 

All March and no April
I wish I could be like Monty Don with his perfectly arranged shed filled with sharp secateurs and tidy trowels arranged in height order. Instead I have a pigsty (literally as well as figuratively) where the only things I can find with any regularity are roller blades and bicycles (neither of which appear to be of any use when cultivating a garden - although you may disagree).

Fritillaria meleagris in the orchard
So I have decided to give myself a Christmas present of an organised potting shed. No I haven’t won the lottery; the shed is an existing piggery and I shall attach hooks and well-positioned nails to create a home for all those myriad lost items. Then all I have to do is find the missing garden tools, hang them on their appointed brackets and use the reclaimed hide-and-seek-in-a-fluster time for actual gardening. 

Apple blossom
A few nails in a wall isn’t a major DIY project and once I start moving things into their new homes, old friends such as the long-lost loppers will hopefully come out from their hibernation behind the stack of tangled spring rakes. So why isn't this an Easter present? The truth is that I have more pressing business to attend to this weekend. There are seeds to sow; plants to plant; and a whole lot of chocolate to find.

Wishing you a very happy Easter. 

P.S. My humblest apologies if you are happily sowing your beans this weekend and humming a certain Jam song with David Watts replaced by Monty Don. It's small consolation I know, but the song is reeling round my head as I type.