Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Gardening in November

November is a time to be tidying up gardens and allotments and planning ahead for next year - searching online for ideas or, in the more traditional way, perusing a bumper seed catalogue. In my volunteer gardener role in Oxfordshire, I've been busy helping with the usual autumn jobs of clearing leaves, cutting back herbaceous planting and digging up spent annuals. The Calendula didn't seem to want to stop flowering but given that the garden is now closed to visitors and therefore there's no-one to appreciate their loveliness, it was time to get the job done.

These are jobs I also need to do in my own garden but plants that ought to be dying back or resting for a while seem to have had a growth spurt so I think it's worth waiting a tad longer.

The Acanthus mollis just keeps growing - but unfortunately never flowers...

Other plants are busy putting on their usual autumn display especially the Fatsia japonica but the Clematis cirrhosa, which usually flowers in February, has decided to put on a small show now.

Fatsia japonica

In the London garden I look after for The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, I'm spending a lot of time online sourcing new plants, trees and suitable containers. I've recently ordered two apple trees to grow as (possibly) double-U cordons in large pots: Fiesta and Red Falstaff, maiden trees on M9 rootstock - ordered from It will be difficult given the shady conditions and restricted space but I'm up for the challenge...

As well as adding new planting to the rear courtyard garden, we plan to introduce a new front garden behind the railings - this will be a dye garden. More on this in the New Year!

We had the exciting news in the summer that we had finally got an allotment after nearly 4 years of waiting. It was a very neglected allotment so it's been hard work to get new beds dug, rubbish cleared, a shed reconstructed, and paths laid. It's now a race against time, or rather the weather, to get as much finished as possible before the ground gets too hard. So whereas it's generally quiet at the allotments now with most plots looking lovely and tidy, I'm aiming to be up there every day this week in the cold laying bark paths and constructing edging, attempting final bits of digging and wondering whether I'll get the shed painted...

Finally - the bottom half of the allotment is taking shape. The raised beds in the foreground will be moved and extended in the spring. There will be a central circle with feature planting - next year it will be cardoons!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Lost Gardens

Hidden garden at Stroud Museum in the Park

I'm sure everyone finds the notion of a lost garden intriguing: particularly if you just stumble across it - derelict walls, glimpses through an old doorway, maybe the remains of a fountain or statuary, but certainly waist-high weeds and grass and trees growing out of the walls. But is a lost garden just a neglected garden or something more? Heligan of course have created a successful business out of the romance of the lost garden. Somehow the idea that Heligan was lost partly because many of its gardeners didn't return from the First World War makes it all the more poignant and fascinating.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall

The National Trust and English Heritage have re-created many lost gardens - I love seeing the old photos of how they were, finding out why they were either left to go to rack and ruin or swept away at some point for a landscape or other fashionable garden. I guess once the garden has been re-created and is all neat and tidy, has the romance gone? I do think though that Heligan still has that essence of the lost garden...

Ruins at Great Tew, Oxfordshire

My volunteer colleague, Alice, recently took me to what seems to be a lost walled garden in Great Tew although my research on what it is, or rather was, isn't conclusive as yet. Certainly there is a listed walled garden at Great Tew possibly dating from the 1600s. It is a curious place though as there appear to be structures around the walls possibly boiler rooms or the gardeners' bothies. It definitely fits all the characteristics one would want from a lost garden - walls all the way round, very overgrown and a sense of history and romance! It was very atmospheric walking through the long grass on a hot and humid July evening to get to it. I need to look at maps or plans of the estate to get a real sense of what it was.

Curious structures at Great Tew

I think a lost garden is different to a secret garden though. I'm sure many of us read the book or saw the film of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'The Secret Garden' and fell in love with the idea of a garden that only a few people knew about. Many properties still have secret gardens - they can be well-tended but they are usually tucked away and you only come across them by chance. Maybe only one or two people know where the key is? We can even create the illusion of a secret garden ourselves. A few weeks after we moved into our house, the neighbours told us we had some garden behind our shed so we set to work removing all the ivy and weeds beside the shed and sure enough there was more garden than we had at first realised. We also found the remains of a stone outbuilding. We built steps from some of the stone, put in an arch for the existing honeysuckle and added a new honeysuckle. It actually only leads to the compost bin behind the shed but from a distance, it gives the illusion of leading to something more interesting particularly at the moment, with the elderflowers cascading over the shed, insects flying around and a new family of sparrows in the garden, and the fact that it's been rather neglected for the past 2 years whilst we've concentrated on re-designing the rest of the garden...

Our own secret garden!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Cogges Manor Farm

Cogges Manor Farm - side view
Since September last year, I've been working on a freelance and occasional basis at Cogges Manor Farm in Witney:  I'm part of the team of Learning Leaders, delivering education sessions to visiting primary schools. Most of the time I teach university students so it is a wonderful change working with children. It is also lovely just having a 15 minute walk to work!

Looking at the oldest part of the manor

The education sessions are primarily based outside - whatever the weather! We've run them in snow and rain but luckily the forecast looks good for tomorrow's booking. Cogges has a walled garden full of fruit, vegetables, herbs and herbaceous planting (all looked after by volunteers) and extensive grounds including an orchard, old moat and island, fields etc.

The walled garden

We help the children learn the history of this beautiful and fascinating site - particularly the Saxon and Victorian periods - and also about wildlife and growing food. The children really seem to enjoy it - having a chance to get close to the animals, build Saxon shelters, cook in a Victorian kitchen, learn about the life of Victorian servants, explore the walled garden, build a bee house and have a go at making compost...
Looking through to the walled garden

The animals are really popular with the children and visitors of all ages - especially Florence and Fern the very tame lambs as well as the pigs.

We're having a rest!

SPAB Garden update

I actually saw some sunshine in the usually very shady SPAB garden this week and luckily it was on the herbs planted a few weeks ago. Everything is really springing to life and I'm now getting a good sense of what already grows well in the garden. The Hostas are growing rapidly and new ferns are appearing everywhere.

A Polygonatum (Solomon's seal) looked pretty in the dappled sunshine and I'm relieved to see that the Jasmine has recovered from its winter blues and there are now more green leaves than dead leaves...

I've added some new plants to the borders over the past few months including Acanthus mollis, Alchemilla mollis, Euphorbia amygdaloides Purpurea, Polemonium caeruleum 'Bambino Blue' and Ajuga reptans and Stachys officinalis. All seem to be fine so far!

We decided not to plant directly into the old cistern in case the soil damaged it and instead got some basic pots to fit inside (propped up - but need to go up a few more centimetres). I researched Nicholas Culpeper's list of herbs in his book The English Physician and thought about which ones would cope with little direct sunlight and that birds and insects might also like. These are the ones now planted: Hesperis matronalis (Sweet rocket), Anthriscus cerefolium (chervil), Origanum vulgare (wild marjoram), Melissa officinalis (lemon balm), Salva officinalis 'Broad leaved' (sage), Rumex sanguineus (Sorrel bloody dock), Satureja montana (winter savory) and Fragaria vesca (wild strawberries). All have grown in the past two weeks although the Hesperis looks very sorry for itself - it probably needs more sunshine - so that might get replaced on my next visit. It is flowering though so I'll leave it for now - just in case any passing bees or butterflies spot it!

There are lots of tiny strawberry fruits but I would imagine the birds will get them before the staff!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Topiary 2013

Wonderful topiary at Levens Hall, Cumbria

I recently ran a seminar on topiary at Chastleton House (National Trust), exploring the history of topiary from its earliest origins - and how it's been in and out of fashion over the centuries - as well as the history of the beautiful topiary at Chastleton. We then went out to the garden to talk about care and maintenance of topiary and particularly box plants. It certainly seems that topiary is back in fashion again: it was wonderful to see the display of topiary at the Chelsea Flower Show (on the TV) and mention of the famous Mr Cutbush.

Broughton Castle parterre

Sudeley Castle

We explored all aspects of topiary including hedges, mazes, labyrinths, parterres, knot gardens, mad animal shapes and modern geometric or curved shapes. Anyone can have topiary! It can suit formal grand gardens, cottage gardens, small suburban gardens, even houses with no gardens, with carefully placed pots at the doorstep or on a balcony.

What can topiary do? It can provide structure, perhaps providing a focal point or framing a view. It can emphasise a long vista. A tall clipped hedge can hide your neighbours or unwanted view. It can provide symmetry. Most importantly, it can be fun and kitsch – what's more fun than a chicken poking out of a hedge.

You can use topiary to show off your creativity and imagination! It can be modern or ancient – for me it has the same impact. I love a formal topiary garden but also love coming across it unexpectedly.

Frog by the Thames! This photo generated the most interest...

Great Dixter, Sussex

Rodmarton Manor, Gloucs

The topiary at Chastleton is believed to be around 150 years old and although very out of shape now, it is wonderful to look back at the old photos and see how it looked in its hey-day. It is a real privilege to prune it. I've posted this photo before but I couldn't resist putting it again.

Chastleton topiary garden, from the roof

Our favourite shape - the horse

I shall continue to watch The Chelsea Flower Show this week to see if we get more glimpses of topiary but am also counting down the days to prune my spiral and chicken at home and get on to the Chastleton topiary again...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Spitalfields garden

A thriving tree (looks like a laurel but possibly a magnolia!) in the courtyard garden (Oct 2012)

As mentioned in my previous post, I am the gardener (volunteer) for the courtyard garden at the head office of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in Spitalfields, London. My role is to maintain the existing plants; encourage more wildlife; and to do new planting appropriate to the location and the historic building. More on this in a future post...

The garden already has some well-established plants, put in a few years ago by the former director, and these are doing well and are appropriate for the conditions - which are certainly challenging: deep/partial shade, and waterlogged London clay soil. On the plus side, it is very sheltered and south-facing but a large glass office block stops the sun getting into the garden. It does produce some weird light when the sun comes out - it seems to bounce around the walls.

Plants already doing well include: ferns, laurel, Pieris, Pachysandra, Hostas, hardy fuchsia, Astilbe, jasmine, Hydrangea petiolaris.

A shady corner with Hydrangea petiolaris (Oct 2012)

The plan is to increase the planting in the beds but mainly to add some pots which will give us more flexibility in avoiding the clay soil! As a tentative first step, I planted some snowdrops, violas and a Hellebore into the beds last Autumn. The violas didn't do much; the snowdrops have emerged but only one with a flower bud; and the Hellebore is thriving but no flowers. Obviously it is better to plant snowdrops 'in the green' rather than bulbs but I was itching to get on with some new planting...

I am currently drawing up the plans for the pots etc and I am focusing on the following:
  • plants suitable for damp shady conditions and/or pots
  • native plants where possible
  • plants to encourage wildlife (at the moment a blackbird visits)
  • herbs grown by Nicholas Culpeper, who lived in Spitalfields in the 1600s
  • attractive and scented flowers to tempt staff and SPAB visitors into the garden

I am looking forward to getting stuck into the planning and then planting in April/May!

The local blackbird watched me working in the garden in Nov 2012. She looked very fat!

More wildlife - a snail! This trough will be planted with herbs