28 November 2012

A Cold Collation

Great Dixter chimneys as seen from the top of a high compost heap.
On Monday I found myself peering into a store cupboard in the kitchen yard at Great Dixter. From the floor to the ceiling were rows of jars, some still holding preserves from the time of Christopher Lloyd's parents, who moved there in 1912. Like the rest of the house, this cupboard has never been subjected to a 'clear out'.

The British have long been a nation of growers and preservers, and the Dig for Victory instinct continues. Brits have not always been a nation of good eaters, of course. It might be that until recently the need to shore up was the driving force in domestic food production. Potatoes and apples stored, jams and jellies made: food shortages kept at bay. The eating experience was at its best about good plain British cooking, without ideas from Abroad.

The kitchen garden at  Great Dixter.
At its worst, as we know, British cooking could be pretty dire. The exodus of domestic help after the 1930s cannot have helped, as people were forced to boil the life out of their cabbages themselves and in the absence of properly-made mayonnaise there was an over-reliance on salad cream.

Now, people who cook also like to grow things and people who grow things are learning to cook. At Great Dixter there was a cook until the 1970s but when he died Christopher Lloyd decided to learn to cook himself. "Christo was very greedy. He LOVED food," says my guide. Dinner might start with whiskey and walnuts, and after pudding there would be chocolate and coffee. It's very easy to imagine when you are at Great Dixter, with its comfortable kitchen and open fires. And yet home-grown and home-cooked is still quite a new idea: Christopher Lloyd's book Gardener Cook was published within fairly recent memory. 

Well-tempered leeks and bulbs for sale at the Great Dixter Fair last week.
Lloyd's friend and neighbour Vita Sackville-West, who died 50 years ago, had a complete lack of interest in food, shared with many people in her generation. She and her husband Harold Nicolson wanted to be alone in their small cottage at Sissinghurst Castle and didn't want servants around at night. According to former head gardener Sarah Cook, the housekeeper at Sissinghurst would go home after leaving them a thermos flask and a "cold collation". Brrr.

14 November 2012

More Cuts and Some Growth

During my fortifying year as an under-gardener at Brooke Hall in Northamptonshire I treasured my rare moments in the potting shed. I was only invited over there if the weather was really foul. I would quickly rummage around the ancient equipment before being turfed out again. These scissors hung on the wall, only ever examined by me. They were so well designed: perfect for snipping the thousands of chrysanthemums required by her ladyship on winter days gone by. The handles were roomy enough for even the biggest, gruffest head gardener to get his fingers through, with gloves on.
The old scissors were not sharp and sadly, chrysanthemums were no longer required. But a new wave of gardeners, whether head- or under-, appreciate showy flowers, briefly considered to be so gauche. Glads, dahlias, chrysanths will all gladly submit to a quick sharp snip with these scissors from Ancient Industries. The smaller ones are good for twine and the subtle flowers which we know we are allowed to like.

28 October 2012

Say it with Flaars

How do you say "flowers"?
I say it phonetically, being a part-time American, and everyone knows that Americans pronounce words in a more logical way than the British. I don't forget my "r's". I've noticed, though, that a lot of people here, irrespective of background or accent, say "flaars". With that one word they become like the lady of the manor in Mrs Miniver who hands out prizes at her wartime flaar show.

It is as if when a person and a flower connect, that person becomes somebody else.

"Flowers do take people out of themselves," says my friend Georgie Newbery, also known as the Flower Farmer. "They are completely transforming." 

Flowers have always been linked with the rites of passage in a person's life: "Everyone has a relationship with flowers whether they know it or not," she says. Georgie cuts flowers and sends them around the country or does weddings and parties with home-grown flowers. They can be informal or elegant, but they are always "flaars".

08 September 2012

Further Reports from Essex

The Glory Flower, glorious at every stage.
Beth Chatto speaks in perfect sentences. She could be reading aloud from one of her brilliantly written books. Sometimes she digresses to talk about well-known friends who have helped to formulate her ideas, but it's the plants she wants to talk about: she is all about plants and plantsmanship.

"Form and texture is more important to me than colour," she explains. "I've always had grasses. People want petals and colour but I think: 'What would grass add?'"

Hers is a colourful garden however. The glory flower (clerodendrum bungei), above, pops up unexpectedly in a shady area and it stopped me short on my visit. Yes, it has good fresh green foliage for this time of year but its flowering habit is amazing and intriguing.

"Until the flower arranging movement [post-WW2], gardens were full of cultivars," continues Mrs Chatto. "Hemerocallis and chrysanthemums were bred to have small stems and big flowers. To me," she says with some determination, "those flowers were not elegant." 

Beth Chatto filled a need with her new ideas. "People kept asking me about my unusual plants," she says about the flower arranging years. She had sympathy with Constance Spry and they shared an appreciation of foliage, with Spry famously elevating kale into a vase-worthy plant. 'Radical' is not a word that Beth Chatto has a problem with.

03 September 2012

News from Essex, with Beth Chatto

Crossing the border into Essex last week the skies were noticeably brighter. I walked into Beth Chatto's garden before opening time and wandered on my own around the calming lakes in the water garden. There was a 1960s house in its midst, and a slim lady of a certain age walking around with a watering can who didn't see me. I tiptoed around the carpet of turf.

Even after the gardening public began to step gingerly around, talking quietly, the garden retained this feeling of being private, completely imbued with the personality of the woman who created it. No gardening by committee here: the acanthus above is allowed to flop because it looks interesting. It makes a good picture.

"I aim to make pictures with form, texture and colour," says Beth Chatto later as we sit on a bench in the Gravel Garden. The sense of peace and quiet has long gone and children are charging around. The world famous Gravel Garden is a former car park and even now it seems to be the main route for deliveries. A parcel van reverses towards us, beeping loudly. "I don't mean a picture hanging on a wall, with a frame," she continues serenely. "It's an evolving picture... Which means there is a lot of editing. Trees and shrubs double in size; you put things down as ground cover and then they take over... Just this morning we were going around and I was saying 'let's start again with this.'"

There was no garden or house here before 1960, just dry Essex land. The layout does not follow Victorian guide lines but is free and fluid and yet curiously of its time. The planting follows the Japanese 'line of beauty': "The structure of the bed forms a triangle, and within that triangle there are more triangles." They are essentially giant island beds and what could be more 1960s than that.

The garden is very neat,  without being 'tidy'. "I like a certain amount of freedom but there needs to be control as well," says Beth Chatto. Although many of her ideas have caught up with her over the years Mrs Chatto has always been a radical. She is completely immune to gardening fashions. "Nature is not distracted by fashion," she says, almost indignantly. There are plants here which have earned their place and are outside the zeitgest. Right plant for the right place: it's her thing - she may even have invented the idea. If it works, it works. And by the way, she used grasses fifty years ago.

27 August 2012

The Naturalistic Look

"Are you leaving the garden?' asked my aged neighbour, a propos of nothing. I wasn't sure what she meant so carried on shouting whatever it was I was shouting. "Are you letting it go?" she interjected again. "I was looking over the fence and I thought, 'Kendra's decided to let her garden go.'" Now I got it. I pointed out that we'd been away for a few weeks and you know, we're all a bit busy to be gardening all the time.

On my way to the west country the next day I got a message from a production company saying they wanted to use the front of our sweet little cottage for a tv programme. They'd spotted it a month before and its slightly rambly front porch would be perfect. Ha, I thought, can't wait to tell the neighbour.

Self-seeded, relaxed, 'naturalistic' gardens are good for modern people without help. People born before World War Two might favour dahlias strapped against bamboo with white string but that is because they are following the old head gardener model. These days we don't like to tell the garden who's boss in such a bullying way. Design brings order out of chaos. But gravel is best without grass growing through it; a green path really shines when it's been edged, and a lawn should be of a  determinate length. Grass which is just long, with nothing growing in it but grass, drags down the whole picture.

Suddenly our garden has started to sink into the long grass. The meadow under the fruit trees is the same length as the lawn, with circles here and there where cats have been bedding down. After nine years of brilliance the lawnmower broke down, to coincide with the arrival of the film crew. (They filmed elsewhere).

Monty Don said on twitter yesterday: "The most interesting line a garden can walk is the one that marks the point between being and not being."

Or is it all about tidy grass?

27 July 2012

The Last Word in Brick...

…Is ‘Elizabethan’. Better still, Elizabethan brick with Elizabethan pointing. I found myself poking around Vita Sackville-West’s bedroom the other day, with Sarah Raven as my guide. She pointed out that one of the walls had been messed about with in the 1930s and it was not quite as lovely as the untouched Elizabethan wall, below.

Here, the Elizabethan wall is reflected in a hand-painted mirror leaning against a 1930s brick wall.

Sissinghurst is a brick fetishist's dream. Plastered walls reveal their underpinnings; brick garden walls are accompanied by brick garden paths; stone alpine sinks are held aloft on brick legs. It's a pinky-reddy-brown Kentish brick and it provides a warm backdrop for the yellow of a Mermaid rose or the pink of Blossom Time. It's so magical, this brick, that it puts red hot pokers into a different context, and they look really very fetching.

23 July 2012

What to Grow Against a Brick Wall, Part Two

Gardenista is a nice American online sourcebook and the week before last there was a post on brick walls - what to grow on them. I was at Sissinghurst on Thursday and it's all about brick. So here is chapter two to that particular story.

The brick at Sissinghurst is narrow, sometimes curved and often 500 years old. And yet a lot of it is smothered and covered. This is part of the look: Harold Nicolson's rigid lines and vistas are tempered with Vita Sackville-West's romantic effusions. Above: Baby's Tears, feared by some. This is where it belongs, adding blur to the perpendicular.

There is a tall and wide curved wall at Sissinghurst which is not ancient, but was built in the 1930s. Vita and Harold arranged for the construction to be carried out when they were away but despite the carefully sourced brick there was dismay on their return. Too much mortar! Now, there is a drape of purple clematis covering almost all of it. Different wall here.

But the other walls look best, in my opinion, when they are allowed to show through. The planting can draw attention to their beauty, instead of disguising it. Above: cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine, does some polite covering, before exploding into Mexican exuberance later on.

The semi-private living quarters, in which a small amount of sandstone mingles with the brick. And the new-looking terracotta pots: would Vita have tolerated them?

15 July 2012

Science with Peter, the Comeback

Science with Peter has always been a popular item here at News from Nowhere, but recently we have been busy reporting news from elsewhere. It is with great joy then that we can reveal that Peter and his scientific ideas have found a glamorous new home over at the Sarah Raven blog, Garlic and Sapphire. As his press agent, I'd like to point out that he is featured over there on MY corner of the blog, which has had top billing all week. It is called The Why and the Wherefore. Why indeed? Don't ask me, ask Peter.

I love asking Peter 'silly' questions. The other day I was at a friend's, drinking tea outside and looking in the direction of some bindweed silhouetted against the sky. It had climbed to the top of its host and now, reaching ever higher, it seemed to be giving us a cheery wave. "Why don't slugs eat bindweed?" my friend asked with disgust.

As everyone has noticed, slugs are a very successful monoped at the moment, slithering up windows and stealing into kitchens, racing towards the front door whenever one opens it...

Peter has a maddeningly simple answer: "Bindweed is toxic to most things, including us and slugs." One small nibble is all they need to send them off towards something which is valued. In a world facing domination from slugs and snails, weeds as villains come a poor second. So, while no-one's looking, what if tenacious ground elder and toxic bindweed had a fight to the death? Which one would win?

King Kong v. Godzilla or, the attractive flowers of aegopodium podagraria in mid-embrace with convolvulus arvensis, in Northamptonshire.

04 July 2012

The Last of the Garden Clichés

Ahem. A weed is a plant which is in the wrong -- A weed is a plant which no-one has found a use -- Please. Why not sidestep the matter entirely by planting everything in grass, and let the peonies fight it out with the buttercups. It doesn't matter how the latter behave because they look lovely with Welsh poppies, and with ragged robin, and campion. They mingle with the green and provide welcome accents of colour. The green floor is a very forgiving background for any plant and though it might get long and rough you could argue that your peonies have never looked better, putting on a shorter, stouter appearance. The same can be said for achillea and centaurea: they will flop no more. And in grass peonies are not nearly as irritating for the ten months in which they do nothing.

At Cottesbrooke Hall Gardens tall plants are an important part of the whole idea. It is a garden with height. One of these plants which has made itself very at home in the borders is valeriana, recently seen in bud in the gold-winning meadows of SW3 (above, photo by Jim Powell) before blooming slightly further north around the Terrace Border in Northamptonshire. Actually, it pops up everywhere, even amongst the classical statuary in the ultra-formal Forecourt, far away from where it was intended.

This is why it is making a steady march down toward the Wild Garden, with human help, where it can scatter itself amongst the buttercups and devil's bit scabious. It looks good there; it looks good everywhere. But there are so many fascinating plants in the formal gardens that they need more space to perform and I'm not sure whether valerian would be described as fascinating, though certainly useful in bringing the planting up to eye level. The question is, now that valeriana has found a home among the wildflowers, what is it exactly? And do stop going on about weeds!

For more lower-upper class plants see The Observer Organic Allotment Blog.

25 June 2012

Cott'sbrooke Characters

Special Plants' Derry Watkins, with purple accessories.

 Rosie Bose of Glendon Hall lets down her hair.

Ancient Industries ingenues are recommended.

Carrier Company Tina plus Hepburn cheekbones.

Gina Portman of Folk at Home.

James Alexander-Sinclair with his new wooden spoon.

Cotts snapper James Corbett

Swing Seat Des and Niwaki Jake

 Turned out nice: a sunny late afternoon in Northamptonshire.

02 June 2012

The Thirteen Clocks

On a fine, sunny day last week I visited Cottesbrooke Hall. Formerly known as Brooke Hall on these pages, it was the setting for my year-long training with the Women's Farm and Garden Association, a good excuse to drive down the farm tracks of Northamptonshire at dawn before many long days of labour and toil. In a completely inspiring setting. I went to see my old friends in the Gardeners' Mess Room and then was allowed out into the park and 13-acre gardens.

Because every inch is combed through by the three and a half gardeners there is a lot more garden per acre than most people have with no acres. The planting density is higher. The Terrace is a classic double border in the country house style: the garden-visiting public demands this in a place with 'Hall' in its address. Ribbons of smart tulips were still flowering away thanks to the well-irrigated spring, but meadow flowers like corn cockle (below) are becoming a presence and they have crept and then marched into all the formal borders.

As always, it is the unplanned combinations that really sing in anyone's back yard. I was particularly struck by the dandelion clocks on a bank in the Wild Garden, mixing with camassia. The white globes crowding around the Chinese pagoda were like a mass of lanterns, making the place look like a storybook version of the East via the East of England.

Other choice weeds were planted at Chelsea this year, on purpose, and with their good friends the native wild flowers, they did not let the side down. For more raving about weeds and friends do visit my very own Way of the Weed, over at the Observer, including the reliably lively comments section.

Herbalism inspired by Julia the herbalist, also known as

26 May 2012

A Bit of Breathing Space at Chelsea

Amongst the frenzied and over-scripted coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show on tv it was a relief to see some calm, in the gardens themselves. As well as BBC presenters, the planting can get a bit excitable. Last year the garden that won Best in Show had patches of bare earth, with pillars lying on the ground. Cleve West, its designer, dared to leave well alone again this year and won Best in Show for the second year running. There's something going on here. Joe Swift's irises (above) look very happy with a bit of park sand around them, the euphorbia keeping a respectful distance, the cornus far enough away not to plunge these sun-loving plants into shadow. The gravelly sandy stuff they use in French parks is an excellent foil for the flowers and trees.

Why does every inch of a border have to be stuffed with plants - to prevent weeds? In her romantic meadow garden Sarah Price planted herb robert, red clover, horsetail and even - plantain. At Chelsea!! Weeds are allowed in and so is a bit of disorder, or an idea of disorder. Plants wandered on to the straight paths making them less razor sharp, and also bringing attention to that nice gravelly sandy stuff, which seeds love to germinate in.

Ditto Tom Hoblyn and his Lake Como-influenced garden. Plants grow hither and thither, as seen in this 360º panoramic: possibly the best way to see the Chelsea show gardens without being there in person. Photos and tv can only focus on the broader picture or the minute detail of say, Nigel Havers. Three more panoramic gardens:
Andy Sturgeon
Arne Maynard
Diarmud Gavin

All images by Jim Powell.

20 May 2012

The Freezing Fete

The fete at Great Easton is the best one in Leicestershire, and this is partly because it is held in a garden. The tea, cake and village hall china are reliably excellent and the plant stall demands careful planning: get there early or repent for a year. The book stall has a side line in ancient jigsaws and we bought one for £1 featuring classic cars outside a village pub with a church steeple in the background. Very Great Easton.

 Yesterday was possibly the most fun I've had at a fete and I think it was to do with the mad weather. My son was ensconced in fake fur (the hood on his parka was firmly up) and people were drinking tea with gloves on. The plant stall did not sell out in five minutes flat because people have rather given up on seeing flowers ever again. But the atmosphere was good, with friends, friends' parents and children's friends milling around and it was just as busy as it would have been in glorious sunshine.

As the temperature wavers between single and double digits, people become more full of hilarity. We aren't moaning about the weather any more. What's the point? It's all a joke, as the spring and summer slide away in a torrent of rain, wind and poor visibility. We are stronger in the face of adversity. God Save the Queen.