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.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Vegetable disorder

Chelsea has been and gone, but not forgotten. A brief respite of about day at home ensued when I arrived back home from the show at the end of May before work was finished off for the forthcoming Girlguiding UK Centenary Garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, opens in July. Work has already started on this garden, we are in the second week of construction and the garden is coming along nicely (see the RHS blog link for regular updates on things).

My own garden at home is also coming along nicely and I feel rather sad to be leaving it for two weeks. Flowers are blooming, tight buds of roses are now beginning to open (everything seems to be about 10 days behind last year) and the vegetable garden is growing lots of sumptuous goodies for later in the summer and beyond. I picked my first broad beans yesterday, very good, and I hope those left behind in my absence will enjoy the fattening pods that remain. Maybe it is because of the cold winter, the late frosts, the slow start to the year but my onions are producing lots of flower heads. These look very pretty but the swelling bulbs will not be as good as those that are growing 'normally'.

I have a Salvia var. turkestanica growing in one of the veg beds, it arrived from nowhere last year and I haven't had the heart to remove it to the flower border yet, particularly as it does look rather stunning at the moment. Goes well with the flowering onions.

Maybe my vegetable beds are going to become my new flower borders?

Friday, 30 April 2010

Cowslip carnival

It's a week today until we are on site at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show to start building the Victorian Aviary Garden. All the finer details are frantically being attended to and, thank goodness, the last of the RHS forms winged it's way in the post to them this week! However, paperwork for the Girlguiding UK Centenary Garden is already filling the vacuum left by last of Chelsea's forms. We had the final approval for this garden just before Easter, so it is somewhat manic and frantic at the office in an effort to get the aforementioned last minute details done and dusted for Chelsea, and ensuring all is well underway for the mass of elements for Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

There is a separate website for The Victorian Aviary Garden whilst the Girlguiding UK Centenary website has more information about their garden. I'm also doing another blog on the RHS website, under Hampton Court Show, and it covers both gardens. See the links on the right for these websites.

There is a fantastic display of blossom on trees now and cowslips everywhere are looking particularly blooming. I have a patch in the garden that gets bigger each year and looked particularly lovely the other evening in the long sunlit shadows at the end of the day. I've also been at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire this week, walking round with Ed Tucker the gardener there, and found a lovely display of tulips nestling against some ornamental grasses at Auberge Du lac restaurant . The colour of the Bergenia flowers, also looking stunning, compliment the tulips perfectly.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Light levels

I have been like a woman possessed in my garden recently. Having beeen locked away behind closed doors for most of the winter (you try working in a garden on heavy clay when its frozen or sticky), the lovely warm weather and longer days have meant I have been unleashed from my tethers and let loose with a fork in one hand, ad spade in the other and packets of seeds between my teeth. Doing two show gardens this year equals not much time in my own garden, at a critical time, too. We're on site at Chelsea in six weeks, so that's May taken care of, then I have a two weak 'break' in June before Hampton Court Show build starts in Mid-June. So, in the next six weeks I have to get the veg beds prepped and planted (runner beans will have to go out early, must remember to write husband a note re: frost protection), finish preparing borders and splitting perennials, weed my cut flower borders and sow seed for plants (will I be here to pick and enjoy the flowers?) and lay a new wooden terrace area. Yes, I know... but it's nice to dream!

Plans are going well with Chelsea. The blog for this now has it's own website:

The Girlguiding UK garden is getting finalised: the RHS wanted a few more tweaks which have been done and re-done so we are awaiting the white smoke to flow from Vincent Square for the final 'yes'. However, plants are already growing for the garden as some had to be started last month from seed. The collation of all the various elements of the garden is coming together and need to be finalised in the next few weeks before I disappear off to do the Chelsea garden. No pressure then!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Getting slated

Last week saw a flying visit to Cumbria, despite a last minute hitch with the car. Jonathan and I visited Kirkstone who are sponsoring all the slate for the Chelsea show garden and we discussed with Manager Nick Fecitt significant details such as how the egdes of the steps will be finished, what pattern do we want to lay the slate paving sections and thickness of slate. Then it was onto Newby Bridge Hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere to look at an existing wall here that will be dismantled for the terrace wall on the garden. Don't worry, it's going back to Cumbria after the show! The whole show garden will be re-sited at Newby Bridge Hotel and will look stunning there.

We also had a site visit last Friday to the Chelsea Show to see where our garden will be situated. It was an early start from Cambridgeshire and I felt like a sardine on the tube, but I had fun listenting to various people's MP3 players (why do they play their music so loud?) in the packed tube carriage, trying to work out what music was playing. I enjoyed the reggae album the best. Standing looking at our plot in a very empty would-be Chelsea Flower Show ground was interesting: the vast expanse of grass in front of us that would normally be dominated by the Floral Pavilion made the chillingly cold day seem even colder. The ground where our site is rises around 300mm, a slight issue but not a major one and I'm sure Mark will resolve any problems with this.

There are 14 main show gardens at Chelsea this year and I'm the only female designer out of these. Why are men dominating Main Avenue? I think back to when I was growing up and women were still in charge of the garden, the kitchen and fashion but now it seems men are muscling in on our comfort zone areas. Come on girls, where are you?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Bedding down

On Sunday, the last day of January, I popped into my local garden centre to buy yet another pair of secateurs. Top of the 'I'm always losing these' list, I usually manage to mislay at least two pairs of secateurs each year; they mysteriously manage to get thrown away with plant debris onto compost heaps or get left in gardens. Now I don't tend to buy expensive ones as it seems a foregone conclusion that they will end up being lost, but I do like a decent pair that are good to hold and work well.

I searched high and low in the garden centre and only found a mere three pairs of secateurs, all the same brand, to choose from. Staff at the centre were busy clearing away the remains of Christmas decorations and lights and I asked if there were any more in a different location in the shop (you know how it is, things are always being moved around). Apparently not. How silly of me to think there would be after all this is a garden centre, not Argos.

What I did see plenty of on display which made me stop in tracks was masses of tiny bedding plants no bigger than the size of a thumb. Let's just back pace here - it's the last day of January and summer bedding plants are on sale. It's almost as bad as seeing Christmas decorations in the shops in August. We'll be growing sunflowers in November next.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Watch the birdie

A somewhat cold and freezing morning on Wednesday saw Jonathan Denby, co-designer of The Victorian Aviary Garden, Mark Richardson, landscaper of the same, and me coming face to face with the awesome sight of Waddesdon Aviary in Buckinghamshire. Amazing just doesn't even begin to describe this vision of Baroque-themed splendour! The aviary was built at Waddesdon in the late Victorian times but only renovated six years ago. It's filled with exotic birds, all having stunning colours and interesting calling sounds. If it hadn't had been so cold (there was still the remains of heaps of snow at the side of the drive) I could have stayed there all day to take in the sumptuous aviary and it's surroundings.

But we were there to work. In our Chelsea garden, the centrepiece of the design is a smaller simpler version of the Waddesdon aviary. We inspected and photographed the construction and it's finer details, pondering questions about how to re-create the trelliage work and whether the intricate decorative mouldings might be available from an ironmongers somewhere in the country. Warming up with a steak sandwich in the nearby Five Arrows hotel (very posh, great steak), discussions as to where the Chelsea garden aviary will be built ensued: Cumbria, where Jonathan lives or Suffolk, where Mark is. The jury is still out.

Sleepless nights have kicked in. Worry is not essentially the cause at this stage (it soon will be), it's more just planning things in my head which, coupled with long days, equals too much brain thinking activity! Must stock up on YSL's Touche Eclat as dark circles under the eyes looking darker by the day...

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Fleeing the nest

My foster charges have flown the nest. I have been looking after a nice selection of plants for a client's garden that I was due to plant up before Christmas after the landscaping was done but ice, snow and heavy frost meant they were going nowhere. The recent thaw has meant trowels can once more be plunged into frost-free, if rather soggy, soil so my charges were dutifully tucked up in their nice new garden on Thursday. I think I've managed to convince the client that I haven't planted a load of dead sticks and plant labels! There was indeed plenty of signs of life emerging from the pots of soil: thick leafy buds waiting to reach up to the light and then unfurl into splendid greenery. A wonderful moment fleetingly made me pause during the planting - my face felt the warm rays of the sun, what delight! I've always associated that cheek-warming event with February and not the cold dark days of January. Maybe spring will come earlier this year?

Preps for the Chelsea garden are gathering a pace. More discussion on stone walls (I feel like I'm becoming quite knowledgeable on the subject) and slate is now likely to be championed rather than a mix of limestone and slate. We need to visit the quarry in Cumbria, look at various walls (I will definitely be an expert by the end of that visit) and sort out one or two other things. That's a couple of weeks away but next week we are meeting at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire to see the magnificent aviary there. This is the centre-piece of our Chelsea garden and the point of inspiration for the whole design. Think opulent, lavish and a bit of kitsch thrown in for good measure. All we have to do now is create our own version of the aviary!

Plans for the Girlguiding UK Centenary garden for Hampton Court are also going well. Details of what we're up to are still top secret, though...

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Pebble dash

Yesterday was spent in Cumbria, also taking in a wee bit of Yorkshire and Lancashire for good measure. Jonathan and I visited Maggy Howarth, designer and maker of the most beautiful pebble mosaics I have ever seen. She lives in a farmhouse high on the Lancashire moors with views extending to Yorkshire in one direction and other counties in the other. Her enviable location has had it's drawbacks in the prolonged snowy weather as she was completely cut off for several days; snow still covered the steep narrow lanes leading to her house and we had to leave the car at the end of road and walk along a treacherous icy track to reach her door.

All well worth the journey and with a cuppa warming our hands we discussed the Chelsea garden and how the mosaic fitted into the design before having a tour of the workshop, and then onto Maggy's studio to discuss design options. With four creative-minded people in the room, it was an interesting and somewhat lively discussion! How much colour, what pattern, shall we reflect design details of the aviary, birds and what type...? Parakeets were looked up in books (what gorgeous bright colours they are), but in the end we chose another classical bird with a long tail. Can't say more than that at this stage, but all will be revealed soon.

A dash back to Jonathan's place at Yewbarrow House, Grange-over-Sands to meet up with Alan Ward who is doing the sculptor in the aviary. Further interesting discussions here but a bit more work is needed as there seems to be three different opinions on what the options are at the moment!

Good news on the stone for the terrace wall. The pile of stones at Jonathan's hotel is perfect! His team have re-built a stone wall there using stones from a dismantled old wall and the end result is a mix of mossy weathered limestone and slate, all looking looking pretty fab. Jonathan's asking his team to come down to Chelsea to build the wall in the Victorian Aviary Garden.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Stepping up the details

I sat drinking my Chamomile tea in the lovely contemporary restaurant at Anglesey Abbey on Monday when Mark Richardson, landscaper for the Chelsea garden, looked me in the eye and said: 'So what was the step height in Victorian times and what style was the over-hang?' A quick chat with Jonathan Denby, Victorian gardens specialist extraordinaire and my co-designer, resulted in an excited phone conversation last night.

We'd already decided on curved steps up the terrace where the aviary will sit in all it's sumptuous splendour: 'Curved steps are Gertrude Jekyll's favourite design for gardens' said Jonathan reading from her book on landscape details she wrote with Christopher Hussey, Garden Ornament. Apparently there's a whole chapter on steps and it begins: 'The decorative value of steps consists primarily in the alternation of horizontal bands of light and shade - shining treads and dark risers. If this is always borne in mind, the right proportion of rise to tread will follow naturally'. It seems we have Mark's question answered.

The terrace on The Victorian Aviary Garden at Chelsea is paved with Cumbrian slate and the raised drystone wall made from limestone. Back to Monday, and Mark wanted to know if we had any 'used' i.e. weathered stones suitable for the wall. Over to Jonathan again who happens to have some dismantled drystone walling available from a garden being re-designed at one of his hotels in Cumbria. It's slate not limestone, but we could have a mixed wall in the Chelsea garden. 'Take some photos and bring some stone samples to the next meeting!' I instruct him.

I was keen to have a flavour of Cumbria in the Chelsea design to reflect the sponsor, South Lakes Hotels, and because I was so charmed by Jonathan's own garden at Yewbarrow House at Grange over Sands when I was last there in early September. The photo above shows a beautiful drystone wall in the Yewbarrow House garden and we're hoping to get the same craftsman who built this to do the terrace wall for the Chelsea garden.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


I'm being foster-mum at the moment to a nice collection of plants, destined for a client's front garden. I was due to plant up a couple of weeks before Christmas but, soon after the plants were delivered, we had 10 days of heavy snow and frost here in Cambridgeshire. Then it was Christmas, ditto, then New Year, ditto. Snow still blatently lounges around the garden, although I did some green lawn the other day blinking in the midday sun. My hopes are set for planting my charges next week, I shall miss them greatly.

The excitement of doing a Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Palace Flower Show garden is still keen and biting. The paperwork is flowing, relentlessly, not to mention the research and frantic exchanges of e-mails! Less than four months before we on site at Chelsea, how scary is that? On Thursday it's a five hour drive to Cumbria to see Jonathan and chew through my long list of things to discuss. On Friday we are meeting Maggy Howarth who is designing and producing the mosaic path, she lives just over the border in Yorkshire from Jonathan. Maggy is already putting her mind to the design and I'm really looking forward to seeing her ideas.

Long meeting yesterday with Mark Richardson of Stewart Landscapes, he's building the garden for us. We met at Anglesey Abbey, the half-way point for both of us. Sadly no time to visit the Winter Garden or see snowdrops, maybe next time. Reminds me, I still have to write up the minutes of the meeting!

Hampton Court preps are also progressing well. It's still hush-hush at the moment with the design aspects, hopefully I can reveal all in March.