Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Two hours between lunch and dusk

Autumn and winter tasks are always piling up. By December, they've piled up so high it feels like they might never get done. Bulbs planted? Well... I could leave it a bit longer, the bulbs might be less happy, but they will also have a lower chance of rot, pest and disease. Broad beans planted? We-ell, you can plant them in a warm spell at any time. Sweet Peas planted? Ever since I found you could leave planting your sweet peas till Christmas, I've been unable to resist doing so. Except then, Christmas comes and you've just eaten a pile of pudding the size of your head and Dr Who is on in fifteen minutes and while you know that theoretically that is enough time to plant a tray of Sweet Peas, somehow it just doesn't happen. Which is how, on the last day of the year, I end up with something like this:

I've got a job to do!

The Sweet Pea seeds are in the padded envelope, and came free with the bulbs (as did that large pack of pale allium bulbs in the middle). That rather nice garden knife was a Christmas present I am already abusing - but I can report that it works just as well as a bulb planter as it does a widger. It's late, and the ground's a bit hard where it's exposed. In the end, I decide it's too cold for the Broad Beans. I'll slip them in in the next warm snap.

But the rest gets done. 

Friday, 26 December 2014

Garden Art : Rose Lowder's Bouquets

Rose Lowder was an artist with a day job (she now is a professor of art!), editing TV for the BBC, taking the unwanted parts of film, slicing them out and throwing them away, all the stuff that wasn't wanted. Sacks and sacks of stuff.

But then, she took herself and her bicycle to France, and in the spaces around work (more work) filmed flowers and their surroundings, using 16mm filmstrips as a canvas. Flowers and scenery, tourists and weeds, litter and animals all mashed together into one-minute bouquets, shot without continuity, interwoven frames creating a multiple persistence of vision that puts the flowers in their context in space and time. (more on her techniques here)

The films are shot in the camera, during the visit/s, frame by frame or passing and repassing the film back and forth. Constructed in the camera, any frame may occur at any time. The resulting films are like small flowerbombs going off, the familiar 16mm flicker subverted into fast-switches of subjects, often with dappled light, sunshine, wind or water adding its own movement to the melee.

Lightcone have an archive, and you can watch most of the Bouquets online (look out for the blue "play" button next to the film thumbnails) including  Bouquets 21-30, and my personal favourite, Bouquet 5. On her art: "I do less, but try to give it more attention."

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Red tulips for Christmas

I'm ready for Christmas, I've bought my tulips:

As usual I also have a bulb in a pot that I planted too late to do anything for Christmas. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

the whole world's sap is sunk

I took half an hour from the time writing my paper this week to sweep some leaves from my neighbour's "miniature" twisted willow tree and drop them into the compost bin. All the gardening books and shows recommend the making of leaf mould, but I have too small a garden to do anything which involves having black plastic bags hanging around getting smelly in a corner. So instead I sweep up the leaves, chuck them in a trug, drop enough in to the compost to provide a brown layer and then scatter the rest on the flowerbeds for the worms, extra thick layers over the softies (a begonia I can't be bothered to dig up, my fancy schmantzy tulips, anything else I can remember) and then usually get bored and dump the rest in a corner (the worms will come out and find the leaves - link to a lovely BBC timelapse video of worms gathering leaves). It's like making leaf mould, but without the stinky black bag stage. Me and the worms take it straight to humus and compost, without the faffing. Repeat as our long, slow autumn drops more and more leaves on the patio, and the garden becomes increasingly brown and ragged.

It's a complicated time of the year for me. On one hand the dead, dull, sere, dead, withering plant is as much the plant as it in full leaf or full flower. But while a slick of frost on blackened foliage and empty seedheads is undeniably pretty, piles of slimy flopped stems (I'm looking at you, geraniums) with the odd evergreen made extra rambunctious by the cosy mess around its roots is a look that's harder to love.

But I am persevering. The satisfying tidiness of a bed cleared down to neat brown rich soil appeals to the tidy human mind that sees seeds, potential, prettiness, order ... but it's not going to appeal to my hibernating ladybirds, busy blackbirds or precious worms. By spring the garden will have absorbed the slime and recycled the stems. The soil will be the richer for the dead things left on it, shedding seeds and nutrients into y improving clay. And in spring the tulips will rise, each one whispering: I am re-begot/Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

yea plants, yea stones detest, And love - John Donne, A  Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Season of fairy lights

Walking back from my friend's house this evening, the houses had their bling on. Discreet wreaths in dim doorways, lines of flickering lights, shrubs wrapped up in multicolours, and on the house in the middle of Flo Park, the one I once saw draped entirely in lights, some fully professional flashing neon christmas signs.

This is the outside lights at my work and my home; the lights on Spriggy are solar, which means they're raising enough of a charge to light up every few days. The lights on the beautiful beech tree are super low-energy, and have the same chilly whiteness as modern streetlights. The sort of light that plants can grow in.

Friday, 12 December 2014

December is Cotoneaster

Some days, walking into work feels a bit like an executionary march. This time of year, especially, with my pale Northern skin screaming for a few hours of sun, I instead power through a blessed thirty minutes of low sunlight/flat grey skies, (or occasionally driving icy rain) into the artificially lit and climate controlled officeworld, where only a few hardy pot plants can survive.

This Thursday, I instead had the long walk. Forty-five minutes through urbs, suburbs, business and industry parks around the ring road, and a bright morning to walk through, hazy sun and crisp air. A morning to take every off-road route available. I started along the creekside path. The creeks are cut into our estate to keep water where it belongs; in the Thames. This close to the river they are concrete-lined culverts, deeper in the middle, made for fast drainage and sequestering of floodwater. Foxes and feral cats trot along their concrete banks, and wagtails flicker across the water. Field maples line the river, nettles crowd the path, yellow and dull green, the odd hawthorn making a splash of red. Then into the park, past the morning school-run. The municipal beds have gone to neon-bright pansies and primulas, with occasional pins of small ornamental evergreens in lurid lime green, fairly glowing against the year-round yew hedges.

Then out into the world of front gardens, at this time of year showing wear and tatter, brown leaves scattering the lawns, but here and there a shrub showing spectacular autumn colour; December is Cotoneaster, bright with red berries and redder leaves, black twigs like mucky brushstrokes peeking over low walls, waiting for the birds to become hungrier as the frosts get harder.

This year, I can't help looking for flowers. Fuchsia, still flowering. Chrysanthemums, still blaringly bright. Mock Orange and other municipals enjoying a second flower flush, particularly in the warm particulate glow around the ring road. And the roses! Still powering on, deep into winter, flowers and fruit on the same branches, promise and fulfillment all at once.

Top to bottom; red Cotoneaster, sunny Chrysanthemum, delicate Mock Orange, rufous Hydrangea, orange Firethorn and irrepresible Berberis. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

In praise of December roses

Don't cut your roses back! Even the twigs may in this cold month do something as beautiful as this:

They may be a bit bruised by frost and tattered by winter winds, but the roses aren't going anywhere this year. Mostly from other peoples' front gardens and municipal planting on sunny walls, but the tiny globe of red rose is from my own back garden (as is the random winter jasmine).

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

First frosts

First frosts have struck. Nothing has reached the ground yet, but soft plants that keep their heads up (New Guinea Busy Lizzies, Morning Glory, Nasturtiums and Begonias) are turning to mush. So this weekend, into the compost they went. I have the bog standard municipally discounted compost bin, which makes me (according to the Alys Fowler system of compost makers) too boring even to mention. Nevertheless, the £20 bin is tiny enough to cram into the sunniest corner of my yard (meaning it gets grazed by sun once a day at this time of year) and big enough to give me two top-dressings of compost a year and fast enough that I'm never stuck for space for my potato peelings or hedge clippings. You're not really supposed to put diseased leaves, pests and perennial weeds in it, but I do. Everything goes in there, especially slugs. They eat the leaves, the worms finish the job, and the potatoes enjoy the fertile seep around the compost bin.

the nasturtium are over First hoar frost

I shook out as many seeds as I could, but it looked like the frost caught them fat with water - they were swollen and popped. Not to worry, though, I have stockpiles of back garden easy seeds (nasturtium, morning glory, nigella, wallflower, marigold, nicotiana, opium poppy, etc.) from more congenial years.

Then I found the tender pelargoniums. I bought two of them for £1.99 in a parlous state from a houseplant sale, snapped off their faded blooms, and popped them in a pot by the backdoor. They have flowered gloriously all summer, but they were never supposed to even live outdoors, let alone spend winter out there. Part of me wants to rush to their rescue, pot them up and pop the into one of my coddle-zones.

The other part is watching in fascination to see how long they'll last.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Singing Parasols at the Chelsea Art College

We went to see the Turner Prize exhibition, which I do tend to want to do; there's often good ideas to take back to the garden. But, not this year really. Lots of crabby video art cowering in the dark, just one room of something non-video, which was quite lively but nothing that would really work outside. But across the road as we left the gallery, we saw lights, and heard some musical noises. On closer inspection this was coming from a group of four garden parasols installed in the neon-lined courtyard of the UAL. The gate was open, so we went for a look:

The pots contained speakers, concealed with cheerful greenery. The thickened parasol posts had little contacts on them, and when touched together, these made music, while the parasol tops flashed multi-colours in time to the music.

It was lovely, interactive, engaging and an excellent response to the local environment. I'd take the Turner Prize straight across the road to this, to be honest. And I'm newly inspired to get some noisemakers into the garden, next year maybe, for a summer party.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Half an hour in the garden

One of the joys of working from home at this time of year is that I get to see the garden during daylight. Otherwise, I leave in the gloom of dawn, and return way after dark, and my interactions with the garden are confined to hoping I don't slip on unseen catshit when I go to cut rosemary for the evening potatoes, and being slapped in the face by unseen vines as I got to empty the compost in the dark.

November gardening has a lot to do with time management; looking at the most urgent jobs on the list, calculating how long there is until night or rain falls, like fat wet grey duvet smothering the space you would do work in, and fitting in whatever you can until you have to retreat, cold, wet, muddy and shivering. Half an hour between an online meeting and a library appointment? Time to hoik out the last of the peppers and squashes from the greenhouse, and put in the tender shrubs.

The last remaining Nosferatu chilli at first glance looked OK, but on second showed grey mould on the flower tips, where the first cold nights had bit at the tender growths. I pinched out the damaged tips, picked off slugs and popped it onto my bedroom windowsill. Hopefully it'll do better than the one I brought in two weeks ago (and brought out again and put in the compost last weekend). Still, out with the old, in with the new; I picked up a fancy Amaryllis in a bulb sale, and that's now sat in the space on the windowsill vacated by the Chilli. It looked a bit end-of-season at first, but then the centre started rising, and now it has a breath of green on it, and I have high hopes.

Back in the garden, OMG Nectarine and Crimson Bonfire and the Languishing Olive and the two Abutilons (Poppy and Trad) are tucked into the greenhouse, along with all but two of the Pelargoniums* and Froggy the fancy Chrysanthemum, Tweedia and a couple of soft fuschias. I popped the new South African heather and a couple of Alpine pots in there, too, as though they're probably tough enough to take the cold, the wet is a different matter.

I'll pick up any stragglers at the weekend (that new passion vine, for example) and make a decision about the Agapanthus. Normally it goes in, but this year there's less space in the greenhouse and its outside space is newly sheltered by a water planter.

Out in the garden, the frost is already shattering the delicate and tender, Nasturtiums hanging down like rain-smashed party decorations and Germaniums** flumped across the soil, leaves turning to transparent slime. Winter is coming.

* There's two just outside the back door I can't bring myself to move yet.
** Household name for New Guinea Busy Lizzies.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Freak of the season

... and here it is. The sun has dipped below the horizon, so you can't fully apprecaite the strangeness of seeing pale pink blossom and bright yellow leaves. But here is the proof: 2014 was the year that trees blossomed as their leaves were falling.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

November in the garden

My own little microclimate is doing me proud. The last of the Blueberry leaves are bright red, the geraniums and nastertiums are in full flush and the passionflower is tossing off blossoms daily. It's also the time of year that Cyclamen follow me home, if I let them.

Friday, 14 November 2014

November Posy

Back in 2011, startled by the numbers of flowers I saw going for a second time on a regular November commute walk, I started photographing November flowers. Because the days are short and the light is low, November flowers often go unremarked and unnoticed. But not this year. This year, Monty Don was on Gardeners World gesturing at a trees showing autumn leaves and blossom at the same time (it's in the intro - you won't have to watch for long) and when I went out to garden last weekend, I came back in with a bunch of flowers:

There are more, much more this year than there usually are. The garden is warm. I've seen the trees doing blossom and autumn leaves. The winter jasmine is already out, while my nasturtiums and the passion vine are still flowering away with enthusiasm, the geraniums are having another go, and there are also fuschias, ornamental sage, penstemon, erigeron and veronica in flower, along with the plants you'd expect, like the chrysanthemums. The seasons feel tilted, as if they're not quite sure who should be here, as if they're jostling together.

You have to ask questions about climate change. I'm a sporadic recorder on Nature's Calendar, and they say with the confidence that comes of having a vast dataset; spring is coming earlier and autumn is coming later, It's good for my autumn flower arrangements, but what about the pests and the harvests and the planning and the seasonal tasks?

Time will tell. But in the meantime I'm letting the garden have a last few glorious weeks. We've had our first frost, but it didn't get down to the ground. So the Peaches and the Tweedia and the alpines and the Abutilons can have a last few days outside before going to greenhouse. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Casa Freelands 2014 : Supernumary Snail

Last year I made wine for the first time, half improvising, half following the instructions that came with a £30 winemaking kit off the internet, a few suitable instructables, some forums and the opinions of several winemakers. The result was Casa Freelands 2013 : Earwig Dreaming, named for the most startling bit of wildlife to emerge from the grape bag. Barbie Pink, sharp bordering on acidic, but nevertheless a potable brew. We drank all six bottles, the last one in late summer. It probably peaked in May, although I had treated all the bottles differently, so it might just have been that June and July were in sterilised bottles (the best flavour came from the completely untreated bottles, then the boiled bottles, then the chemically sterilised bottles). It was strong, not something to drink half a bottle of. I made my original batch when I found that the juice I'd made by boiling the fruit for ten minutes had started to ferment in the fridge. Look at the bloom on those grapes! That yeast is good to 10%, and ferments fast and hard.


Of course, there is a problem with those grapes. Not very ripe. This year, I thought the entire harvest would rot ere it was ripe, shocked by cold and drenched by wet. It didn't, but you can see the brown here and there. It was a close run thing. Here's my home-vinting kit:

casa freelands 2014

That muslin turns into a punch bag, and provides a yeast reservoir and the outrageous barbie pink colour. The pegs are an innovation for this year - helping with the straining of the must. The juice from the harvest bag looks a bit brown, but that's because the taint concentrates at the bottom of the bag; you can see the actual colour on the muslin. I wasn't sure I had ferment till the following morning, but there it was, going like the clappers, on its own yeast.

It was slowing yesterday, so I adjusted the sugar up and inoculated it with a sachet of tame yeast, to top up the wild. The flavour's holding so far, the colour steady on pink. But the ferment is already fading. I'll rack it at the weekend, unless the yeast finds a second wind.

And we shall have wine.

Friday, 7 November 2014

they won summer: garden peach tomatoes

The last of the garden peaches is waiting to be eaten downstairs. A fuzzy, yellow, species tomato from Central America, I picked up for a laugh in a handfull of packs of crazy tomato seeds. It germinated well, grew strongly and it can take a lackadaisical attitude toward food and water. The plants are sturdy, the leaves shrug off loopers and the tomato fuzz over the skin of the fruit keeps the nibbling slugs and snails at bay. Those are all good things, but they are nothing compared to the best thing.

The best thing is the flavour, sweet and rich. The best thing is the texture, melting and soft. Cut raw slices are extremely good, like a proper posh canape - but gently cooked and served with something savoury (it really doesn't matter what) it becomes the sort of flavour you exclaim over.

I can't think why it's not grown commercially. Maybe that fuzz doesn't store well.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

International Garden Festival 1984 Liverpool

I was in Liverpool for reasons of art and music but in the four open hours between the two the Museum of Liverpool beckoned. There, in the 80s section, I found evidence that something extraordinary had happened in the docklands, cartoon liverbirds, dragons, teddy bears and all:

Liverpool Garden Festival

Down on the ground floor I hit paydirt: a scale model of Liverpool's International Garden Festival which hinted at a truly bonkers showgarden bonanza, complete with Pagodas, atomic glasshouses, big tops, floral liverbirds, giant logos made of flowers, and of course a yellow submarine:

Liverpool Garden Festival Liverpool Garden festival
Liverpool Garden Festival Liverpool Garden Festival
Liverpool Garden Festival Liverpool Garden Festival

It seems almost designed to be enjoyed from above, which is how it is displayed in the museum, angled to face the camera eyes of the visitors in a dimly lit case (to avoid the model fading?) and the label suggests a story of long years of feisty campaigning, demolition and neglect before a final flourishing:

Liverpool Garden Festival

We didn't have time for a visit to the renewed gardens, which still seem quite Utopian, though they lack the garish artworks and sculpts of the original. Maybe next time; and remember to ask, "where's the Blue Peter ship?".

Friday, 31 October 2014

my first native hedge is all grown up

I'm a big fan of hedges. and it's probably the Ladybird Books that are to blame. Ladybird Books were a big deal when I was growing up, and they were full of ecology; trees, the countryside and even an entire book on hedges. When I moved into a house with a rough patchwork of fences, I went to the internet and bought a native hedge. It arrived in the depths of winter, unpromising twigs wrapped in black plastic. Look at it now:

It's a deliberate height to screen, being an urban garden, but it's hit that awkward point where it sees the possibility of trees in its future and starts shooting for the sky every moment your back is turned. You can just hack it back with an industrial strength trimmer of course (that is the country way) but you can also do what I'm doing here, which is taking out branches that are trunking and leaving the thinner, bushier growth. Where you cut, you get a puff of fresh growth, so lots of cuts at different heights fill out the hedge and make it bushier. Kind of like layers in a haircut, but for hedges.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

the doomed seedlings of october

The autumn is so warm this year, that the seeds are spouting everywhere. I found two tiny seedlings struggling out of raw tarmac this week, doubtless with grand plans of growing vast and cracking the tow-path wide open. Respect to their ambition, but if they can't get beyond their seed leaves before the first frost, that's not going to happen. In fact, between dry cold, wet cold, hard rain, frost and low light levels, it's probably not going  to happen at all. Poor little things.

Although ... I'm guessing they're Red Valerian, like the seedlings in this nearby grime-encrusted drain cover, and they grow like a scorch and can find space in any crack. So maybe I'll find them next spring, cracking the path from side to side.

There's still time for planting this year - broadbeans, garlic and onions outside, annuals into the beds and perennials in the greenhouse, sweet peas in the growhouse. Not all seedlings will be doomed, particularly those I have in the greenhouse or under fleece or cloche.

Cloche, cloche. I mean those plastic trays fruit come in from the supermarket.

Friday, 24 October 2014

October is ivy

The meeting is over and I'm coming home. Light levels are plummeting as if the earth is a lift dropping into the earth. I've decided to drop by a few chores on the way and I slip down an urban street in the twilight fringes of the retail park, large houses in various states of repair, some scattered with political slogans, others growing ripe crops of rotting vehicles. But on the whole the houses are becoming more grand; drives going down, windows gussying up, paint smartening, front gardens straightening. Two gardens this year have fallen in love with dahlias, and the remnants of their passions are still bright as jelly beans and plastic toys in their front gardens, waving improbable tentacular heads.

At the end of the street the garden shades into the park, mature plane trees rising up like a rich green curtain, scattered with gold and flecked with brown, and the fence against the park, heavy with the flower heads of ivy. October is ivy, walking through its thick vanillary cloying scent and halo of buzzing drunken insects. The original trees in the park date back to the estate; 1920s, 1930s, and if the Poplars had not been pollarded almost to half their potential height they would be dangerously vast. In the triangle described by the grandfather trees, a modern play area clusters around one of the vast felled trunks, left for games of King of the Castle. Here and there the autumn blaze of mid-sized urban trees breaks up the green, Maples and Liquidamber each with an attendant sniff of evening walking dogs.

Into the shops for the chores. Not successful. But by the time I came back out again, night was falling, and the front gardens were dim and shadowy, scattered with cats of varying friendliness, and the air smelt of wet leaves, damp soil, and the rain that would soon be falling.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

All hail the semi-hardy self seeders

Just a few weeks after I found petunias self seeded in building perimeters within urban gust distance of balconies and municipal planting, a rather more rurally located friend found, inamongst the other joys of the British hedgerow, a self-seeded Lobelia.

What's going on? Apart from anything else, all the hanging baskets in the city centre this year were revolutionary red and feisty orange (with the brightest examples reserved for the troughs outside County Hall), yet here they are, reverted to white, pink and purple allsorts:

Part of the mystery is the very warm autumn we are enjoying. This means I'm still clinging to hope for my grapes, but also that lots of plants are trying to squeeze in an extra generation before the frosts. The second is that Lobelia comes true from seed, and Petunias don't. Learning for me? Buy some bedding and see if it'll do its stuff in the cracks on the patio. I'm not the world's biggest Petunia fan, but for these hardy inhabitants of marginally hospitable cracks, I make an exception.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Note to self : get more dinosaurs

Inspiration of the day: Platform by Matt Girling at Modern Art Oxford. Makes me feel like I need more dinosaurs.

I like those curvy contoured shelves, and the tripod marks on the floor to enable your stop-motion projects. Screens probably best kept for indoor use only. The dinosaurs have all been painted in plain matt paint, which added an element of quest to the I've got one of those! game.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Autumn comes to the garden

It's getting dark out there, but the flowers are still in full swing. Not a breath of frost, soil still warm, and the wind is not even that cold. There's even another tomato coming where I didn't quite clear away a plant. The grapes are still trying to ripen. It's been a rich year, but slow. I'm not sure I'll get the grapes to wine, for all that the vine has been prolific.

That Euonymous Fortune Gold isn't the one in my garden -- it's a front garden down the street. Lots of them have berried spectacularly this year, possibly even mine -- I've not checked. Fuschia "Space Shuttle" is mine, all mine though; I'd given up on it flowering this year but it's up and running now! I picked up the White Scaevola as plugs for a few quid in the Raven's sale, and every flower has been perfect. I even gave a few away. Cyclamen; irresistible at this time of year, with their petals wrapped like umbrellas.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Cracked and got tulips

It's been a bad day! It's not my fault! Also these two were completely irrestible.

Tulip "Aladdin" - lily flowered, rich red, feathered with gold.
Tulip "Purple Prince" - velvety purple single triumph early

Be still my heart.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

What's a Georgian Urn?

I musts confess that I find Georgian Urns a bit fussy. They also always look too small. How can anything live in such a small space? And also, surely, every time it rains, they must flood? Still, I see them doing extraordinary things in fancy gardens, so possibly you just learn the skills to keep them working. That or just refresh the plants, weekly, which is possibly what's going on with this very stylish example I found in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Loving the paint job, but I'm guessing that's cast metal, so include also temperature swings in the list of problems challenges to be met.

I may have to start taking a similarly disposable attitude to me poor old Pot O' Doom. I pulled out the freebie Rose of Sharon which had been testing the limits of its plant killing capabilities (it only had a few leaves left anyway, so, very capable) and tossed in a few cyclamen, as winter bedding. But if it's going to be showing off temporary plants, then all manner of things are possible (though admittedly not that many at this time of year -- pansies? Maybe that Wallflower everyone raves about?). But come next year, the sky's the limit. Cannas for example -- like this one I spotted over a wall while stopped at the traffic lights (in the passenger seat) on the way out of Portsmouth. Canna Pretoria, AKA Bengal Tiger I think. Va va voom.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Other people's gardens: that's a nice hedge

I had to stand in the middle of a (side) road to take this, so the photograph is not excellent. However the communal gardens outside these flats is a very nice bit of shrubbery!

Each shrub, though it has gown into its neighbour, is treated as an individual, and given a smooth cut in an unmatched curvy shape. It looks like an abstract landscape; a series of soft green curves set low enough not to obscure light from the lower floor, but wide enough to make a proper barrier. The dense-growing hedging plants along the front have taken it the best but the more open shrubs behind are starting to join in the party. The whole thing feels a bit fortressy, but in a smooth way; not attacking the street, more encouraging it to slide off the property. Those dense thick bushes are good for tiny birds, too; in fact, yes. That's what it looks like, a Zaha Hadid fortress for sparrows.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

A walk through the village

I like to walk somewhere every day; days I'm in the office for the day. my commute has it covered, but when I'm working from home, and the most I have to do is nip down to the shops, I have to get creative. So I go to the shop up the hill rather than the one on the corner, and walking back from there I notice an alleyway leading off the A road and into the Village.

The Village is old. It has a Saxon arch on the church doorway, and ancient trees shade the houses. There are fat loafy cottages in it with thatched roofs (now subdivided for letting to well-behaved professionals) and there are still paddocks, with sheep and horses, although the barns have been converted into business workspace long since. As the city steadily swamped the village, it clung onto its village nature by refusing through roads. Instead there are pedestrian paths, and into the village I went, along one of these.

Behind the high old stone walls covered with Erigeron and Red Valerian, pergolas and arches were just visible in the gardens covered with fancy clematis and  Thunbergia, the occasional tall Hollyhock or Sunflower  peering over the walls. The far end of the passageway dropped me back in the tidy lower end of the estate beyond, with front gardens full of cats, cars and tidy specimen shrubs. At the end of a cul de sac, the houses became a little more rambly and overgrown and then a steep passageway fenced on both sides, bordered by nettles and overshadowed by dark trees took me back down to the village corner, where it joins the main road. On the turn, a row of expensive houses have become almost a traffic island and their gardens express a sort of variability of affluence; in one garden, tumbledown landscaping and a smart Monkey Puzzle tree bounded by ancient Lonerica hedges slashed back to the brown; in the next, a tidy drive bordered by smart, colourful semi-professional planting; in the next, dark parched ground, stacked timber under a single, massive, mature tree and a tickle of clematis on a rusted arch; in the next a Chelsea-perfect courtyard flaunting prestige shrubs, deep rasied beds full of big tropical leaves and colourful Katsura trees.

As I emerge onto the main road, I take a sharp left to cut through the playing field, past the first of the houses of our estate. The front gardens have the eccentricity that starts to emerge as houses get closer to allotments (these are on the other side of the playing field) with houses proudly sharing climbing roses and Wisteria with their neighbours, competitions for the fanciest front shrubs in full flush and the presence of obsessively tended sunflowers marking out the houses with children. 

There are dogs on the meadow, chasing after balls. As a watch one, in his enthusiasm to beat a very fast spaniel to the ball, does a double sideways roll on the soft grass, bounces to his feet and trots off, triumphant. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

In praise of September colour

Some things are fading in our hard dry September. That fuchsia has just been shed by the plant, a fat flower bud it can't afford. The Sunflowers and Rudbeckia are already looking tattered. In the greenhouse, my Nosferatu Chillis are healthy and in full flower - but they get a regular water. The tender climbers (blue Tweedia and orange Nasturtium) and the Sweet Williams are having a second flush. The Begonias and New Guinea Busy Lizzies are still going, they say it's not too cold yet.

Thursday, 25 September 2014


I'm on the mailing list of a series of iconic buildings (partly because I've been to events at them and partly because I like the idea of communication with the built/grown environment) and the Barbican mailed to tell me about Tent/Superbrands which well the name's not promising but it was something we hadn't done before, and the cost was low and the possibility of seeing something we had not seen before was high.

And although about interiors (mostly) there were items there for the gardener:

The vase cover (above) makes a wine-bottle flower vase into something altogether more DESIGNER. It was also from a social enterprise of some and therefore one of the few items on sale for £cheep. Mostly things were in the 1000s, or unpriceable, like the beautiful abalone-covered boulders, which would look amazing on your Ballardian terrace but which I suspect would delaminate spectacularly if exposed to anything resembling damp.

The aspirational (read: unaffordable) balcony furniture in chilli hot colours and curvy shapes and the gorgeous polished concrete were both very tactile and human - silky-smooth surfaces and containable sizes. Things you could fit into a modern (read: small) space. The cooling-tower storage tables were a particular hit. You could probably dump the lid, screw it to the floor and make a tall planter of it. Kniphofia maybe, in one of the acid pop colours.

There were design projects from various different countries, too - Korea was on a pleasingly domestic scale, objects of use centred around ordinary activities (tea making, gardening, accessories). The seed markers and planting kits inspired by the Sotdae which guard dwellings and villages were especially pleasing, as was an intensely desirable blue and white ceramic cold tea diffuser designed to go on top of your plastic water bottle. The angular bar furniture (above, right) had been rapid welded and topped with vinyl floor tiles. For rugs, stitched floor tiles edged with a job lot of tassels. Quick build, but with attention to detail, and for sale at normal garden furniture prices. Pretty!

But it was in the Old Truman Brewery so nothing was following us home unless it could be carried in an exhibition bag.

Friday, 19 September 2014

In praise of strangely coloured vegetables

The tomato glut is not insane this year. I planted the seeds too late, too close together and didn't feed and water enough. But it's here! Purple Cherokees, Black Krims, Chocolate Cherries and apricot-coloured garden peaches are all ripening successfully. Green Zebras and Silver Fir Apples are doing less well. It seems I have a fondness for strangely coloured vegetables (there are white strawberries and golden raspberries in the garden) and am one of those outlier consumers who pick them up when they appear in the supermarket for two weeks before disappearing, never to be seen again.

Look at that aubergine! We went to an unfamiliar supermarket in another town (Morrisons in Gosport) and found it sat there next to the regular aubergines. The opalescent beauty of that white doesn't quite come across in the shot. It glimmers. The flavour is good. But am I looking at a Snowy, a Clara, an Ivory or  a Raja? Time to experiment! The White Eggs may be an easier grow than the full-length fruits (my garden is shaded and the growing season accordingly is short). Hmm... customers who bought this also bought: Strawberry Spinach, Goji Berry, Golden Beet, Wonderberry and Brazilian Oval Orange.

Brazilian Oval what? Is that an Aubergine? Yes, yes, it is. And Nicky's also have the orange aubergine.

Oh dear, now I have a dilemma.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A wander through the parks of Gosport

I've been heading down to the South cost at the weekends recently for family reasons, and though you wouldn't think that a hour or two's drive would make such a difference, Gosport is deep in a sheltered bay, shaded from the channel by the Isle of Wight and the gardens are teeming with palm trees, tender flowers, and shrubs which have clearly never suffered a hard winter die-back.

There's also quite a lot of garden history - we found ourselves wandering through Crescent Garden on the Saturday, though I was without camera, phone or any other recording device. The trees were largely original, each one a vast trunk and decorative branchery managed to within an inch of its life. Rambling roses jutted up through the canopy and a huge myrtle the size of a small caravan hinted at what my tiny bush could become, given rootspace and an endless supply of warm bright winters.

Tim remembered Privett Gardens as a place of fancy planting, but any flower beds had long since grassed over. Two fancy tree arches hinted at past glory, while a decorative mound of trees had been co-opted into a crazy-play area, with bikescar paths and a swinging rope. There were ancient native Hawthorns trained carefully into smart little trees, a hint at austere raw materials made grand by great care at some point in the past.

Suburban back gardens have their own glory, of course. These two items (a peachy Alstromeira and a fine wildlife access port) are both things I want for my own back garden. Though I was offered some of the clump of the Alstromeira, there was ground elder in the bed and I currently have none. The wildlife door will have to wait until I see my back neighbour again. This seems to happen once every four-five years.

Stanley Park was closer to the sea and accordingly the planting was HOT. Look at those Red Bananas, what beauties. They were as tall as us. The dark red Nicotiana had a delicious scent, and looks worth pursuing, a very pretty plant. Those fancy echinacea were planted in a fishpond turned long bed. Too hot and dry for fishponds nowadays? Or are they just too high maintenance?

There was also a very mature woodland full of very fancy trees (including a fairly giant Redwood), teen hangout spots, exciting running around places, and an endearingly creepy pet cemetery.

We broke out of the bottom of the park onto the seaside, and ice cream while we watched the Moths and Lasers zipping across the bay. Sea cabbage and low-growing nightshade colonising the gravel slopes against the promenade. Dogs and children running. Sunshine.

Friday, 12 September 2014

First of the autumn bulbs

It's been dry for three weeks now. Normally this would favour the vine, but a cold/wet snap before the three weeks of dry has stressed the plants in two directions and I now have the holy trinity of moulds (downy, powdery and grey) feasting on the plant. The best solution would be for me to head outside and chop off every infected shoot (right now, that's all of them) and then go through every grape bunch by hand to remove every discoloured, small and imperfect fruit. But it's really too late. I should have been watering, mulching and pampering from a month ago, whisking away all the extra growth and trimming the bunches carefully to the capabilities of the plant. But I look at my limited time and enthusiasm and the task in hand and wonder. Is it really the best use of my time, ferreting through the mass of purple-brown fruit, full of hard rot - botyris, but a decidely non-noble variety - for the few fruits that might come to ripeness? Superficially, it looks like a useful task, but no wine will come of this. Is that much work worth a handful or two of sour grapes?

Which is why I found myself hesitating by the tills at Marks & Spencers and then buying myself some crocus bulbs alongside two loaves of cut-price bread. Crocus Blue Pearl, the first of next year's flowers.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


Mellow fruitfulness ahoy!!!

Nosferatu Chilli, Black Krim tomato, an enormous marrow and a stunted sunflower. Most of the garden gets eaten by slugs, but this time of year I get some of it!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Tomatoes too tasty to photograph

As per the Gardener's World jobs of the week, I was reducing my tomato foliage and discarding pests (not too bad on the loopers this year, but a plethora of soft, small slugs). I planted fancy varieties this year and it was a good moment to look at how they had fared.

  • The Krims had done well, of course. A few fruits had doughnutted, creating some very decently sized fruit indeed. Reliable and delicious flavours with a big pop of umami.
  • The Chocolate Cherries managed 3-4 germinations out of twenty, then 3-4 fruits total. What we got tasted amazing. Could have been unlucky or inconsistent care.
  • Silver Fir Apples have pretty, delicate foliage and are tiny. I couldn't water them enough, and they were too thin to support their enthusiastically sized fruit. A bit of a special effect! 
  • Green Zebras are REALLY TALL. Very vigorous, outcompeting and overshading everything else. 100% germination, the overachievers. The fruits taste sweet and zingy. 
  • Cherokee Purple taste good, but not as good as the Krims, probably because the Krims can put up with cooler weather and worse treatment! But very tasty, would grow again.
  • Garden Peach I only discovered when I dug them out from behind the zebras. Prolific fruiter, high pest resistance (not a single fruit had been pested) and the flavour and texture are curious but delicious. More flesh, less seed, sweet with a hint of apricot.   

It's also the moment you find the rotted, the chomped and the holed fruits. One that's been hollowed into a slug cavern, one that's picked up the mould from a dead stem. Alas, poor tomatoes. My care has been (as ever) inconsistent. But it's been interesting.

The last fruits are now ripening on the stems. I've underfruited, overpested and had various bothers and rots, so next year I need fewer plants, less congestion, and more reliable water.

Too bad I've already bought five packets from heritage tomato pusher Pennards. Especially as that number doesn't Krim or the Peach (and I can hardly not grow either of them after they did so well).

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A walk across town

I had a new route to take this week; heading across town to a hospital unknown. Google maps estimated a forty minute walk, so I slung my course books in a bag (anticipating a significant wait when I got there) and stepped into the streets. This year, water has been somewhat short in supply for full-size trees and the Limes which shade the streets in my area are flushed with yellow and super-heavy with seeds. Already a drop of leaves has left the streets rustling. The front gardens are beginning to pick up a slightly crisp look, as the handsome perennials start to crisp at the edges, clematis stems browning and roses going to drop and spot.

I'm trying to get back into the habits of walking new streets at the moment. Last week I had the chance to take a wood-in-the-city bike/pedestrian route I'd not walked since I lived in that area of town. It felt like Autumn already, all fruit growing out of the back of gardens and berries glowing from the hedges.

But the air was heavy with scent, and I smelt it again today. Late August and early September is Eglantine or Traveller's Joy, more commonly known by its hedgerow name of Old Man's Beard, our native Clematis, scrambling over the hard lines of municipal Robinia, and through the random exclamations of buddleia. This year it has flowered in giddy profusion, creating a drunken mass of flowers buzzing with bees and hoverflies, and the first of the wasps giving up on the summer and turning to nectar in death-driven desperation.

On the route to the hospital is seemed to be growing at every corner, waving cheerfully at the traffic fumes on the A roads, sneaking stealthily into the front gardens, knocking on the windows at the hospital itself. Although that might have been its cultivated cousin, Fragrant Oberon. I have an Oberon in a pot, while I have it. It's been losing a fight against something for months though. Probably weevils.

Wild Clematis en masse smells almost like Oberon. A little wilder.

Friday, 29 August 2014

In praise of August Sunshine

It's the end of the summer now; in fact the weather has just snapped its jaws, hard, and overnight the leaves on my apple tree turned yellow and the tomato plants started to fail. It's early, and some things (like the grape vine) will be lucky to make harvest at all. But as we start to shade into September rain, some plants have the right idea about what they should be doing. These below are a mix of the brave sunflower survivors of my slug-tattered garden and the bedding (dahlias, sunflower, prairie daisy) in my local park. And they're all yellow, like suns in the border.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Blossom end rot

My tomatoes this year have suffered, but not without cause. I've been experimenting to see how little I can provide for them and still get fruit. This has meant small pots instead of grow-bags, less pinching and trimming, less tying in and (sorry, plants) less food and water.

Part of pushing boundaries is finding where they are, and the physical evidence of that boundary is shown above - blossom end rot, caused when the plant runs out of water and nutrients before it can complete the fruit. Low fruit levels, some plant failure, yellowing and other signs of struggle are here and there too -- especially on the seven plants I put in small pots and on top of a wall in the shadiest corner of the garden (I had about thirty plants, all of fairly delicate heritage varieties).

But even they have fruited. Tomatoes are brutes. They can take bad treatment, and come back fruiting. And next year I'll know about tomatoes in pots in my garden:
  • Yes please on sun but not on wind -- it dries them too fast
  • You're going to need a bigger pot, and one plant in one pot. You can't underplant with anything. Sorry.
  • They will do better under glass, sorry.
  • Tie in early and feed and water regularly. 
Next year I may experiment with letting them out into the flower beds. The only plant I did that for this year with stripped and killed by slugs, but if I find the right place....

Friday, 22 August 2014

Other people's gardens: liminal planting

On the edge of parks and public spaces, gardens sometimes struggle to define their edges. Things comes drifting in (including people, sometimes) and the tendency to enclose or wall with high hedges of fences or trees and shrubs can be nigh-overwhelming. But then of course there tends to be rubbish accumulation on the boundary -- drinks bottles in hedges, graffiti on walls. The boundary, private to public, subject to tiny, constant incursion.

The approach here, where the park railings have been left to stand and the garden simply set to drainage-friendly gravel and blocks makes the same firm statement as a modern bus-stop; if you drop rubbish here, it will be obvious. Behave, act with respect,  because you are fully observed. Garden as panopticon.

But along the border, a softening frill of poppies and marigolds. A sudden smile in the tidiness, an effusion of bright colour saying; yes, tidy, but also yes - garden. See my flowers!

I have a terrible time with marigolds in my garden. Slugs strip them in days. And there's a practicality here, too - slugs aren't going to get out here. The marigolds will like the warm soil under the weedproof membrane. They'll both take care of their own planting. And above all there's the sense of pushing back - a tiny incursion of garden coming out into public space.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

There's no cat in the garden what am I going to do?

The last time my poor old cat came out into the garden took me completely by surprise. He had been sitting on the sofa, in the warm, somewhat sorry for himself, and I thought that was where he would stay that day. But there was a bit of golden sun in the sky and out he came, a bit tottery on his back legs, and walked round the pots, owning each one, until the garden was his again. Even just a few weeks ago, he would then have hopped up onto the cat shelf (a warm stone slab under the vine that catches the sun into the afternoon) for a nap, but not that day. He turned around and walked back into the house, stopping for a rest inside each door on the way.

He enjoyed the warm stone in the garden, but it was hard under his old feet by then. Mind you, he liked uncomfortable things. We gave him a heat pad, cushions, a lovely soft cat bed; he would always rather sleep on cold stone, piles of electrical cables, and preferably completely in the way of everything. The tank picture is from about seven years ago, but the rest are this spring. You can see he is old, but he hardly looks his age (twenty, a Methuselah among cats).

Last week, he looked his age. This week, he is gone. Next week, I shall clear a bit of soil at the front of the flower bed to plant teasels in next year, and a little of him will return and become part again of the garden.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Bitter pit, blossom end rot and the ideal size for your pot

This year for the first time I am growing tomatoes without grow-bags. Instead, I have used pots, in a variety of sizes (in addition to an experimental rig which involved burying potting-on pots in old recycling boxes full of spent compost). That one I'll come to in good time. But on the pots; how small can you go?

Well, go too small and you get Blossom End Rot - a mushy brown bottom on an unripened tomato. This is because the plant runs out of everything it needs too fast (especially water) and the fruit suffers. I've also got low fruit, though that might also be down to my greenhouse spider collection (I actually caught one wrapping up a honey bee last week - the little beast). 25cm seems to be the cut off point - my 30cm pots are OK.

The apple tree was also looking dicey during the dry spell - it does not have enough leaves, and the apples were starting to get that slightly pitted look that says not enough!!! of anything!!!! and precurses the dreaded bitter pit. But it also got some pests at the same time, which lead to some fairly radical thinning of fruit, and I gave it extra water, and some fertiliser, and I think it's going to be OK. But in the long term I would like a larger pot. For reference, the pot it's in is about a metre high and 60cm across. It was definitely the biggest pot in the garden centre. It's not enough. For if there is ever a truth for plants in pots it is this; the pot should be bigger.

I brought home a book from the library called "Success in Container Gardening" or somesuch. Some of the pictures (posed shots of mature plants moved into pots) actually had the plants already wilting. Yeahno, those plants were not grown in those bags.


 But it explained the mechanism of Blossom End Rot to me in brief and comprehensible terms and alerted me to the existence of a seriously weird-looking radish, so I'm happy.

I wonder if I can grow it in a container?

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Free is still more than I'd pay (for a Rose of Sharon)

They were giving away free plants this spring at the garden centre, otherwise I would never have got the Rose of Sharon. As it was, I took a small plant home and dug it firmly into Pot 'o Doom, the most exposed of the modernist fibreglass planters. So far it has killed: a much-loved Olive Tree, a Magnolia Stellata, a rather pretty Fuschia and a Bottlebrush Plant. If you're counting (and I am counting) that is one plant a year, although those years have admittedly included a week at -10, severe summer floods, two droughts and a brutally cold spring.

A week after I dug it in, the combined might of slugs and good old competitive Rose of Sharon took out the Frittillaria that had (to my delight) resprouted from the previous year, and I thought, oh well, at least the main plant won't die. Nothing can kill a Rose of Sharon.

Turns out I was wrong about that. As the weather (and the pot) heated up, the Rose dropped off her flowers, turned brown and shed its leaves. I hypothesise that it was one of the large hedge types. Certainly the flowers were huge for the size of the plant. A self-seeded Candytuft briefly made a living in the side of the pot, and the weird unkillable monster that is my Green Trick Carnation is still dangling cheerfully over the side, and there is an alpine strawberry runner with two leaves left on it in the pot, but the Rose of Sharon, the plant that was free because no gardener would put it in their soil at any price, is about to give up the ghost.

I'm still not going to put it in my soil. The moment it hits rich midlands clay, damp with the river, warm with the sun, it will proliferate and murder anything in its shade. To the municipal composter it goes!

And as for Pot O' Doom, well, there's a Buddleija in a potting on pot waiting to be planted out. It can't kill that, surely?

Friday, 8 August 2014

Object of desire: Tulipa Acuminata

I've never seen it in flower. It's probably not in any sense practical. But I can't stop thinking about Tulipa Acuminata, a Turkish species tulip with long petals like tiny flames. It reminds me of this one time I bleached my hair over compound henna. I ended up with a graduated tint from blond at the roots to scarlet at the tips. Just like this flower. You'll have to take my word for it, as it was during a year I wasn't running a camera.

So I did what I always do under these circumstances, and put it on my Garden: ideas board, which acts as a sort of rag-bag of bits and bobs:

Follow Jeremy's board Garden: ideas on Pinterest.

Plants that have caught my idea, planting techniques, the endless Pinterest weekend projects, things that remind me of my garden, things I'd like to see in my garden, things which have the feel of the future, or the present, or the past of my garden. Some have come true already, some are on the to-do list, some will only ever always be in the maybes.

Not quite sure where Tulipa Acuminata sits yet. But look at it! What a flower. It's said that Turkish sultans had it bred it to look that way, because of their desire for tulips that looked like fire. An ancient ornamental so old it is species now. Is there sun enough for it here? I may never know.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The pests are coming

I just saw the first tomato looper fall as I watered in the greenhouse. They are here. I doubt they'll do more damage than the slugs and snails which are lacing the lower leaves on the tomatoes as I speak, no matter how many I pick off and put into the compost there are always more, waiting in the undergrowth. They smell the sweet green of new shoots and they are in and eating and chomping and bye bye plant, often enough.

Here's a new one in my garden this year. Rose Sawfly, which turned up on the ridiculously red rose which this year is putting on the leggy growth of an established climber. Its new growth is mostly the colour of red wine, flushed with toxins to keep the pests off. But an odd green shoot off some old wood caught these.

From the way they're sitting I think they must be mildly toxic, so I'm sure my sparrow gang didn't mind me cleaning them off into the compost (from which they did not return). The looper has gone the same way, but I doubt it will be a beast as easily banished.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Composting the St John's Wort Teabags

The tea cupboard was overflowing and I needed to to shed a few packets of the unused, unloved, unuseful teas. I found the Heath & Heather St John's Wort tea tucked at the back, bought when the health food shop was selling their last packets ever half price. Last ever because it's not a very safe item, St John's wort. Counterindicated if you're at elevated stroke risk, suffer from migraine, may interfere with hormonal contraception, etc. It's a proper herbal, by which I mean one where you have to tell your Doctor if you're taking it, and they will then tell you not to take it.

I briefly considered Freegling it, as there is sure to be someone locally who's happy to take the risk for the benefit (as I recall, a faint sense of warmth and restlessness, alongside endorphin release from the gag response to the disgusting flavour) but then I examined the packet and realised that the whole thing would compost and/or recycle. Problem solved, thanks to Heath & Heather's minimal packaging. It did all look very cheerful in the process, too.