Sunday, 1 January 2012

Flowers still in my garden

When I wrote my last blog about four weeks ago reviewing plants still flowering in my garden during December, I had not expected that by Christmas Day and even by New Year's Day, there would still be a display of flowering attire in the borders. How stange to have my front door dressed for Christmas yet a pot of red pelargoniums from the summer is still managing to flower it's heart out nearby! I took all these photos on Boxing Day and have checked that everything is still in flower today, 1st January 2012.

Since my last post, there has been several heavy frosts in the garden but plants like my Agapanthus aficanus are still haning on; yes, maybe looking a bit worse for wear, but still in flower. A Christmas Day walk with the dog in nearby woods revealed a clump of small hazel trees which still had green leaves on as well as catkins starting to form. Extrodinary!

A quick list for the techies amongst you of flowers in my garden, including some plants not photographed:
Agapanthus africanus
Centranthus ruber
Cynara caradunculus 'Cardy' (in the green waiting to flower)
Helleborus x hybridus
Jasminium nudiflorum
Nigella damascena
Pelargonium: bedding, ivy leafed in hanging baskets and species
Primula vulgaris
Raspberries with fruit
Rose 'Blairii No. 2'
Salvia 'Mainacht'
Vinca major


Monday, 5 December 2011

December In Bloom

Agapanthus africanus
Ah, the sound of Christmas carols are merrily wafting around the shops and out of the radio at home. People are looking a bit frantic and clutching armfuls of brightly coloured wrapping paper and oodles of bags in Cambridge as they set about their quest for the perfect Christmas present; have to say, my little stall on Cambridge market is doing very good trade as everyone really likes the range of unique and different gardening and home items I have there. As well as every Wednesday and Thursday, I'm also doing Saturdays before Christmas (but not Christmas Eve), so do pop in and say hello if you are in town.
Helenium 'Sahin's Early'
Salvia 'Mainacht'
We may very well be getting into our 'deep and crisp and even' period, but as I walked around my garden last Friday (2nd December, the day before my birthday), blow me down with a feather - there's a lot of flowers blooming happily here! We've had a couple of frosts in this rural corner of Cambridgeshire but plants are standing up well to the weather and the battering winds (the joys of an exposed garden). I haven't even put winter bedding into my hanging baskets yet which are still looking dazzling, but slightly subdued, with trailing pelargoinums: the dahlias are now black in the borders so must lift them before any snow arrives, ensuring they dry out well and are stored in a place where the frost won't touch them. There's even a bit of autumn colour still clinging to almost bare branches from a couple of sheltered Acer griseum trees and a new Parrotia persica, which I put in about a month ago, is looking rather glorious. This large shrub/small tree is something I have coveted for some time and I was really pleased to track one down recently at Crocus.
Salvia 'Indigo'
Gaura lindheimeri
Blairi no. 2 rose
It will be interesting to see how the borders maintain, or not, their flowering as December progresses. I'll keep you posted!
Pelargoinums in pots

Friday, 18 November 2011

Christmas tree de-lights

An early Thursday morning start in Cambridge this week to set up my market stall in the city centre and I'm not the only early bird around. People on the delightful veg stalls on the market are already setting out tempting displays of lovely fresh fruit and vegetables, with many items sourced locally; there is a nose twitching waft of freshly baked bread from that stall, mingling with freshly cooked bacon from the market cafe. The pavements are being thoroughly cleaned outside the Guildhall which overlooks the historic market and as I begin to unload my gardening and home products for my own stall, the fish van from Lowestoft has just turned up with an amazing selection of fresh and smoked seafood, including Brancaster mussels and the best smoked kippers I've ever had - and it's not even seven o'clock yet!

But wait, there's someone else turning up in vans and ooh look, a big Christmas tree has appeared overnight next to the Guildhall! Excitement mounts as market traders get into a festive mood, looking up in glee as we set out our stalls, as we realise what the men in the vans are doing - putting the lights on the Christmas tree.

Now, this can be a tricky project, especially with a tree that big so if you find yourself wondering how the lights go on a large Christmas tree and you want to be as accomplished as the team from Cambridge City Council who put them on today, here is my easy eight point plan to follow:

1. Arrive early to get the best parking spot next to the tree and also helpful if shops are closed and no one is shopping

2. Lay the lights out and check all the bulbs are working, replacing any that are not before you put the lights on the tree

3. Starting at the bottom, wind the string of lights all the way around the tree. [This is obviously where I go wrong at home with a somewhat smaller tree, as I start putting the lights on at the top!]

4. Get lots of help to put the lights on, it's a big tree remember

5. For those tricky places where you can't reach the tree, stand on something solid and stable to position the lights. Don't forget to wear a hard hat and a dashing hi-viz jacket as this will not only make you look very important, it will keep the Health & Safety people happy, too

6. Then get someone else to do this on the other side of the tree

7. Or even do both sides together as it saves time

8. Make sure you get all the tree covered in lights, even the top bit

Et voila - sorted, one Christmas tree with lights!

The big switch on in Cambridge is this Sunday, 20th November, with apparently a 'packed programme of entertainement' expected on the day (according to the local media) in the market square: the Christmas tree will sparkle with its beautifully positioned lights when all the Christmas lights get switched on from the Guildhall at 4pm.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Market daze

Well, knuckles have been well and truly rapped as I haven't done a blog post since last November (or around seven months, if you want to be pedantic). 2011 is a year off show garden duties* for me which has meant I have had the chance to concentrate more on my business, my own garden and even my family. All are doing very nicely and benefiting from the vastly improved input into their well being. I could use the excuse that I had 'blogger's blackout' in my attempt to make amends for my blog absence, but I have in fact been rather busy.

As well as armfuls of exciting garden design projects, I started a new venture this year. Every Wednesday since February I have had a stall on Cambridge Market, a delightful and historic market in the centre of Cambridge within earshot of King's College Chapel and many other Cambridge specialities. My lovely little stall (ah, the joys of being a market trader - it deserves a blog post all to itself!) has an eclectic mix of rather nice gardening products like unusual trugs, plant labels, containers and gardening paraphernalia plus pretties for the home. There is also a range of vegetable plants, all grown from seed by my own fair hands. I've got an amazing selection of Franchi Seeds of Italy, about 30 different varieties at the last count with more being added to. Now I'm getting established, locals are making a bee-line for the seeds and only yesterday I had an Italian living in Cambridge come to the market specifically to see my stand and buy some Franchi seeds. He told me he'd just planted out that morning 94 tomato plants, 12 different varieties, and was looking for a particular Italian climbing bean and an unusual courgette and squash. With the help of the charming Paolo Arrigo from Franchi to identify the varieties, I have ordered the seeds in for the Italian gardener to pick up next week.

Vintage gardening and a few choice home items is another aspect of my market stall. I have great fun sourcing bygones from auction houses in East Anglia - old terracotta pots, gardening tools, old gardening books (love them!), old baskets and other bits and pieces, including ceramics with a tenuous link to horticulture like a floral patterned plates, or whatever. I've just got some lovely old wooden chitting trays from Norfolk which will not only make a good display prop but should also be tempting to passing trade, gardeners or not.

If the opportunity arises, which it quite often does, I like to have a good chat with customers about gardening and plants and advice is freely dished out. If you happen to be in Cambridge on a Wednesday, pop to the market and say hello!

* Although not participating in RHS shows this year, I am putting in an application for a show garden at Chelsea Flower Show next year. Interesting sponsor/subject matter...

Friday, 19 November 2010

Winter Solstice

At this time of the year, my friends mostly ask me what I do now winter is here after all, there are apparently no flowers around and no one wants to work outside in freezing temperatures. 'You must have nothing to do now,' they ask peering into my eyes and waiting for a deep gloomy recession-inspired response. Yes, it may seem a myth that garden designers only come out in spring or summer when the sun is shining (it does in winter), the birds are singing (they do all the year round) and plants are blooming (there are flowers in winter and of course, evergreens). My response is greeted with surprise and delight: I have plenty to do, thank you, and am very busy designing gardens, making gardens and writing about them. 'Oh, that's really good' is the usual stock reply to my explanation of what I actually do in the winter. I have no wish to hibernate in what is a busy time of the year and conditions outside make little or no difference (I always point out to clients that bad weather can cause delays at any time of the year).
The great appeal of implementing and building gardens in autumn and winter is the soil, it's so perfect for planting after being warmed up by the glories of summer allowing roots to put on good strong growth before the realities of severe weather really set in. When I was growing up, planting in autumn was a major part of the gardening year and the start of the season, not the end. Garden centres now are brimming with Christmas decorations, gifts and discounted garden furniture and alas, plants take a back seat to this dazzling array of consumer goodies. If you are planning to re-do areas of your garden, do think about getting this done now and not next spring: the obvious reasons are warm soil, but also some good deals to be had by buying bare root plants from herbaceous to hedging to trees, all far cheaper than container stock. Seek out little nurseries in your area or find those further afield by browsing on the web.

The Great Border in my own garden is now cleared of considerably overgrown shrubs and ready for marking out and liberal application of home grown compost to improve the heavy clay soil further. Some plants have already been bought including the delightful Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Fontane' with its silvery waterfall-like flower heads that last through the winter. Planted in various groups of five, they will eventually make a dense but pretty informal hedge, necessitating only a cut back to ground level in early March. Elsewhere, plants will be moved from other borders or divided to increase stock for the Great Border.

The fields surrounding the garden were, at the end of September, somewhat late in their harvest and the farmer has not yet ploughed them to make way for the next arable crop. This has delighted mass numbers of Greylag geese who enjoy browsing and feeding each evening in the temporarily fallow field. Their arrival at sundown and departure a little after sunrise each day is a joyful experience, a delight for the eyes and ears.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Border lines

The last few weeks have seen borders flowering their hearts out, vegetable plots yield bounteous crops and cut flower borders present armfuls of late summer goodies. The almost continuous rain has changed brown lawns to green (and coupled with warm days, has also meant they need cutting again every week). My new borders at the back of the garden were progressing reasonably well until too much of the said rain on the clay soil meant clearing and digging work has taken an unscheduled respite.

The two new borders are16m and 13m long, respectively, and will also partly act as living screens whilst also allowing glimpses of the open countryside beyond my neighbour's garden. Tall plants like Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Fontane', Rudbeckia laciniata 'Herbstsonne' and Rudbeckia maxima will mingle with successive decreasing plant heights, Veronicasturm virginicum 'Alba' to Geranium x 'Rozanne' and shrubs to create colour and interest throughout the seasons. Autumn and winter outlines, seed heads, bark colour and leaf colour are important considerations for these borders. Planting will take place this month, once we can get back on the soil. Autumn is simply the best time to plant, ever. Moist soil, warmed by the summer, means roots get off to a good start before the frosts and winter's mantle settle in. I will be transplanting quite a few tall plants from another border nearer the house into the new ones. Although only three years old, this border is now quite riddled with ground elder so it will be a good opportunity to take everything out, treat the rampant weed (although, a friend on Twitter advises that it is pretty good to eat - boil like spinach) and re-plant. Taking out the tall plants means there will also be a good view down to the end of the garden and I feel there will be more sense and feel of space in the garden.

The old farm workers cottage I live in is literally situated in and surrounded by fields amidst gently rolling countryside so I'd like to bring more of the landscape into the garden. Wildlife abounds as the garden is an oasis and a roadside Little Chef for birds, bees and butterflies. Two days ago I watched two pairs of Buzzards chase some crows over the trees at the bottom of the garden, there's a pair of Hobby falcons nesting in the old hedgerow in the field opposite the cottage and dusk brings bats along with Tawny and Barn owls on their hunter-gatherer missions. We also have a good population of Dunnocks in the hedges. Birds of all sizes will enjoy lingering seed heads in the new borders and add extra interest and enjoyment over the winter months.

The harvest has been late here in this corner of Cambridgeshire and the wheat field surrounding the house was only harvested last week, the end of September. An area of land has been set aside as a bonfire pile where old shrubs, prunings and clippings have been piled after their removal from the new borders and elsewhere in the garden. Due to the late harvest and it's proximity to the wheat field, the bonfire heap has been left for longer than usual, until it is safe to light it. This has created an added wildlife bonus as a young Kestrel enjoys perching above the heap looking for lunch each day. The site of the bonfire heap will eventually become a raised wooden platform to enjoy the views, birdwatching and star gazing: rural living means no atmosphere pollution from streetlights and the garden is perfect to enjoy and brush up on stars and planets.    

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

DIY garden design

August. A time to take a slower pace in life after a rather hectic period doing two RHS shows this year - Chelsea and Hampton Court. A delight to be awarded a Silver and Silver-Gilt medal and, for Hampton Court, the honour of People's Choice Award for Best Show Garden.

My own garden in Cambridgeshire, two thirds of an acre set in heavy gault clay amidst rolling fields, has been well attended in my absence whilst I have been ensconced in London and Surrey during key gardening periods. I took on a gardener, Frank, in April and he has risen to the challenge of helping tame years of well not quite neglect, but probably a time of 'under nourishment' in some areas of the garden.

August has also signified major changes in my life. Apart from my RHS show garden achievements, my personal life has been momentous, too. My son was 21 in June and now has left home (officially!) my daughter was 18 at the end of August and week before this she had achieved the A level results she needed to get into University so in less than four weeks time, I will be faced with an empty nest. In addition, my husband, who suffers from debilitating depression (the last four years have been pretty challenging for both of us) at last seems to have turned a corner thanks to medication and some final ultimations.

It took two hours to remove this old laurel stump
A period of change embraces the chance to mould house, garden and life in general into new horizons. As well as plans inside the house, the garden will also metamorphose into a new plot, shaking off it's well redundant football 'pitch' and the leftover remains of borders implemented by a long gone previous owner. Trees and shrubs have outgrown their needs and there is an overwhelming feeling of wanting to open the garden up. Enough of these garden rooms and enclosed spaces! Its time for the light to flood into the dark corners, to allow the mossy lawn to grow again and have wildflowers. Its time to bring some colour into this delightful space - my garden.

My husband's renewed interest in life extends to the garden and he has been enthusiastic in his work here where, no doubt, the healing properties of gardening are providing great therapy. Together with Frank, old borders of shrubs are gradually dissolving into clear spaces providing a blank canvass for me to plan their replacements. At the weekend, three huge old laurel bushes were removed - it took Frank nearly two hours to take out one stump - and now I can sit in my office and see up to the end of the garden. In my head ideas for new planting are emerging: grasses, colourful tall perennials and my favourite Hydrangea paniculata will make a bold and striking internal 'screen' to our neighbours but not exclude the wonderful views surrounding the garden.