Saturday, 30 April 2011

End of month review - April

April was dry.  April was very dry.  We had virtually no rain in April at all.  The ground is cracking in places and yet the garden is coping remarkably well.

There is the lone iris in the front garden.  I planted about twenty a couple of years ago, nothing happened.  This year this one flower emerged.  Its a bit out of place with no friends around it, yet it felt heartless to remove it when it had survived when none of the others had. 

I am a great fan of self seeding plants.  They often arrange to arrange themselves much more happily than I could hope to achieve.  These are self seeded verbascums, aquiligelias and Meconopsis cambrica, they are putting on an excellent show this time of year.  Next year the show will be different, and that is why self seeders are such fun.  Of course they do require quite a bit of editing and you do need to be able to recognise their seedlings when they are very young.  It is possible to wipe out a whole generation with over-zealous weeding.  It is also possible to grow a crop of something without weeding enough.

These Tulipa 'Red Shine' are just stunning.  They do exactly what they say will do.  They shine like jewels in the sun.  I could not be more pleased with how they have performed.

I started growing Isatis tinctoria (woad) a couple of years ago after seeing it at the Chelsea Flower Show.  I sowed the seeds and the next year they bloomed and looked nice.  They then self seeded quite liberally and when they flowered this year they looked incredible.  Huge fluffy clouds of beautiful acid yellow flowers.  I know not everyone likes yellow in the garden, I have never suffered from this problem and certainly these are a great addition.

The Catalpa bignonioides is just coming into leaf.  The purple and the green new growth is so beautiful.  This is a young tree, it has yet to flower but was one of the first things I planted in this garden and I am looking forward to it flowering one day with great anticipation.

The alliums are open and looking good.  I always think I need more of them.  The splash of colour is so welcome and works with so many different planting combinations.

I planted this quince tree last autumn.  It is about to blossom and I hopeful that there will be fruit this year.  The hairy leaves are just begging to be stroked.  It doesn't seem to suffering too much from the dry period.

The Medlar Nottingham is a little piece of home, and I admit to growing it mainly because you have to blet the fruit.  It has to be one of the best gardening words ever.  It could only be better if you had a row of pleached Medlars.   Last autumn I made my first batch of Medlar Jelly.  It is the most glorious red colour and is lovely with hot and cold meat.  I was quite chuffed at the results.

In the veg beds the broad beans are close to flowering.  Young broad beans are lovely, old ones you have to skin are less so.  I am pleased they are growing well but I do have to water them a couple of times a week at the moment as it is so dry - did I mention there hasn't been any rain?

and I will finish with the Manx Rose, Rosa pimpinellifolia (Burnet Rose).  This one was bought on the Isle of Man a couple of years ago and is always the first rose to flower in the garden.  It is covered in flowers and smells beautiful.  It is the link between Spring and the flowering of the other roses.

April has been a good month.  Most things in the garden are about two weeks ahead of last year.  The recent evenings have been a bit cold, which is a good reminder that its not quite safe to empty the greenhouse yet.  Roll on May - expect great things from the new month.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Albatross

Gardens I have lived with Part 4

This next garden was really quite large.  It was a ‘good address’ (!)  We bought the house after I spent an afternoon leafleting the south facing side of the road asking if they wanted to sell their house.  One person replied and we bought what I thought was the house of my dreams.  A large four bedroom detached house with plenty of space for two growing children.  What we had not allowed for was the huge rise in interest rates that led to our mortgage doubling  in cost in a matter of months.  It was not a good time.  It became an albatross around our necks that nearly drowned us.

One of my first garden tasks was to remove two huge conifers.  I have to say this right here, in general I am not a conifer fan.  I think them dull and boring, just large green cones that sit there.  Obviously there is more to conifers than this – I love my gingko trees beyond measure.  These two particular conifers, one blocked out the light to the front of the house and the other was smack in front of the kitchen window.  You couldn’t see out at all, so it had to go so that a) we had some daylight and b) I could see the children when they were playing out in the garden.

The garden was largely lawn.  There were some fruit trees including a bramley apple tree.  It is a tree I cannot be without.  

Significant planting for that garden was the magnolia I planted in the front garden.  I still drive past it when I can and it is now huge and beautiful, it was about 2 foot tall when I planted it.  I remember waiting for the first flower with such excitement.

It also had an amazing wisteria around the kitchen window.  It was very well established and I could not believe the wonderful scent the first time it bloomed when we lived there.
I also planted a ballerina rose in the front garden for my daughter and a silver birch tree in the back garden for my son.  They both loved having a plant in the garden that was for them.  It has become a tradition that any new garden since then has to have a ballerina rose and a silver birch and my now quite adult children know they are with me in my garden.

It was also a bit of a pet cemetery.  There was a couple of cats and a rabbit buried there by the time we left.  We actually, we buried the rabbit twice, the fox kept digging it up and traumatising my daughter by leaving the decaying carcass in the middle of the lawn.  After the last time I binned the rabbit, it might not have been the most sensitive of endings, but it saved my daughter’s tears.

When we moved in there was a pond built into the patio at the back surrounded by a huge clump of bamboo.  Bamboo was not fashionable then and it was a total thug.  We never managed to eradicate it.  We filled in the pond immediately due to parental paranoia about children and water.  We started to fill it in with rubble, when we left the house ten years later it was still just a hole with rubble in it.

Otherwise it was a time of child rearing rather than gardening.  I did my best to shape the garden to what I wanted, and I took real pleasure from some of the plants.  I enjoyed planting flowers/plants that excited me but I had not the time to think it through properly and actually set my mind to it.  It is noticeable there appear to be less photographs of this garden than any other I have had.

When it came time for me to leave I was scared of owning a house and garden to myself, I even considered getting a flat so that I wouldn’t have to garden (can’t imagine what I was thinking now!).  In the end I bought a tiny house with a long thin garden – but that is part 5…….

Saturday, 23 April 2011

A little bit of Clough

I've been visiting Portmeirion on and off since 1967.  My parents took us just after watching The Prisoner and they wanted to see where it was set.  It remained a memory of a beautiful, but at that time a little shabby, place.

It was more than twenty years later that I visited again, as an adult with two small children of my own.  It is certainly not shabby now!  It was then the love affair really began and since then I have been a regular guest staying in a variety of the cottages and hotel rooms.  Depending on where you stay depends on the view of the village you wake up every morning. This is the view from my bedroom from the recent holiday. 

Portmeirion is full of people with cameras.  There are limits to the original views you can take that no one else has taken.  As time has gone on I have concentrated on the planting and how it works with the buildings rather than just the buildings themselves.

The plants, the scenery and the buildings create a fairytale atmosphere.  Helped by the total peace as apart from the odd guest coming through, cars are non existant.  When my children were small it was heaven to be able to let them run around and know that they were safe.
 Clough Williams Ellis made no claims to be a plantsman, but there are some beautiful plants.  Some of the most exciting planting to me is the wild planting that clings to the sheer rock faces that surround the village centre.  The buildings cling to these rocks and the plants cling on with them.  The village is lucky to be very sheltered and have its own micro-climate.  Semi tropical shrubs survive here that would perish in harsher climates.

The gardens have a backbone of hydrangeas - they line the driveway into the village and surround the village centre.  This time of year they are just green blobs, but when they flower they provide wonderful colour.  This year the magnolias were particularly fine.  I now have the urge to visit in the autumn, as the village takes on a different character with each season as different plants take to the fore.

It was a week of misty starts, beautiful days and glorious evenings.

Can't wait to go back! 

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Wandering Y Gwyllt

Many people visit Portmeirion every year, but I wonder how many explore Y Gwyllt, the woodland that surrounds the village.  It is there, you cannot miss it, Y Gwyllt is the backdrop that so beautifully frames the Italianate village that is the main attraction.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Portmeirion, I love all of it, but not to wander around Y Gwyllt is to miss a major part of its beauty.  Let’s not forget, Clough Williams Ellis’s aim was to demonstrate how architecture could complement and enhance the landscape rather than destroy it.  The juxtaposition of Y Gwyllt and the village demonstrate this beautifully.

Y Gwyllt has it’s foundations in the Victorian plant collecting activities of Henry Westmacott* and Sir William Fothergill Cooke*.  The exotic delights of the Gwyllt were largely introduced by Caton Haigh*, son of the owner immediately prior to CWE acquiring the land.


Y Gwyllt was neglected for many years prior to the arrival of CWE and this neglect in many ways preserved its beauty.  Nobody saw fit to change it or update it to the latest planting fashions.  CWE bought up the land surrounding the village to ensure it was kept safe from development and restored the pathways through Y Gwyllt.  The greenery of the woods is the perfect foil for the village. 

The area is vast, it completely surrounds the village.  There are a variety of paths through it, many are steep, sometimes slippy and even in the driest summers there are muddy bits to get around.  But it is worth it.  You can disappear into its realms for a couple of hours and even on days when the village is full of tourists you are suddenly alone, rarely passing anyone else on the same voyage of discovery.  In the distance you can sometimes here the sound of the steam trains running from nearby Porthmadog.

As you follow the paths around there are amazing examples of Victorian rhododendrons with their ageing trunk/branch structures that create dark, murky spaces with the foliage and flowers creating umbrellas of colour overhead and carpets of fallen petals.  

The trees are exceptional.  Sky high conifers, redwoods and oaks.  It is virtually impossible not to place your hand on the trunks of some of these trees, the colours and textures just beg to be touched.



 There are glades of tree ferns and the stunning white barks of eucalyptus.  During spring the camellias glow with colour.  All around you is the sound of birds and insects and you drift through clouds of scent that make you stop and pause as you try and identify where it is coming from.

A legacy from the Haigh era that CWE and family upheld is the dogs’ cemetery.  Now guarded by this statue of a dog that has weathered from a deep red to this dark patina.  You walk from the dark paths into the shady glade where the grave stones are decorated with some old decaying toys, plastic flowers and the natural confetti falling from the surrounding shrubs.  

At various points along the route there are viewpoints out to the sea.  You suddenly come out into the light and the stunning scenery of the coastline hits you.  My favourite viewpoint is right at the edge of Y Gwyllt – we call it ‘the end of the world’ as there is no further that you can go.  It is always deadly quiet except for the sound of nature around you.  It is compulsory to sit on the bench for a while and just breathe.  A natural silence descends and it is peace.

Walking around Y Gwyllt is about light and dark and discovery.  I have been wandering the paths now for over a decade (on and off) and still I find places I cannot recall visiting before.  It is also difficult to find the same path to go to the same place twice.  Are some of the paths in a different dimension?  Do you move from time-line to time-line as you go?  It feels like anything is possible. 

*  for more information on this see ‘Portmeirion’, Jan Morris, Alwyn W Turner, Mark Eastment, Stephen Lacey and Robin Llywelyn Antiques Collectors Club 2006

Sunday, 17 April 2011

A welsh afternoon

It’s a glorious spring day, you are in North Wales, and what are you going to do with yourself for a pleasant afternoon?  In my world that means that a bit of garden-bothering is always on the cards.  I spend quite a bit of time around there and when the opportunity arises I like to visit places I haven’t been before.  This time I ended up right on Hells Mouth Bay at Plas Yn Rhiw.  The house dates back to the 16th century and was rescued from near dereliction by the Keating Sisters.  In this endeavour they had advice from Clough Williams Ellis whose own creation, Portmeirion, is just further back along the coast.  CWE is one of my heroes so finding a connection between the two places was an added bonus.

I went primarily for the garden.  The house is very pretty, very solid with the incredibly thick welsh walls designed to keep out the excesses of the weather.  It is a nice house to look around as it isn’t fancy, quite plain really, and it looks liveable in.  It is owned by the National Trust, given to them by the last of the sisters in memory of their parents.

The formal garden is not huge, but very pretty.  This time of year the magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas are looking quite fantastic.  The box hedging frames the garden areas well, though it looks like it might struggle a bit with the sea breezes coming in in places. 

There are a lot of native ferns coming up and in a few weeks they will look lovely.  The ferns are growing everywhere, in the formal garden, on the walls and in the old ruined chapel which has created a small shady nook.

It is a noticeable the amount of small spring flowers dotted around.  Particularly the primroses which are dotted around everywhere.

The tulips are just past their peak, and yet still looked beautiful with their just blown petals gleaming in the sun.

From the house you look across the formal box parterre and then out to the sea.  It is a perfect and peaceful setting this time of year.  The sun gleams over the almost mill-pond like sea in the bay and the only sounds are the loud buzzing of bees and the bird song.

There can be no better way to spend an afternoon (if not in my own garden that is!)

And yes, there will be posts about Portmeirion – that is not negotiable.

more info on Plas yn Rhiw:

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Not keen

There are plants that I like and plants that I don't like.  I am not sure I can write off a whole species, but I do struggle sometimes to find a variety that I like.

So - hostas - I admit I am just not keen.  I think they are slug food, but I am being inconsistent as I love other plants I also regard as slug food and will put in the effort to ensure they survive.

The issue about being glaucous.  Ok, not all hostas are glaucous, and I am not opposed fundamentally to glaucous and yet I look around my garden and see many shades none of which are glaucous.  What's the best thing about being glaucus?  The word, it is a great word.

Which brings me to the point of this  (at last I hear you sigh)  At the weekend I moved some hostas, from there to over here.  Well, from the weird non-bog garden bit that I still struggle to find a use for, to the pond-side border.  I nearly composted them, very nearly.  Not sure why I didn't.  That sentimental part of me tries not to blame them for their kind.  I try not to blame them for them being planted in my garden against my express wishes.  I try to think it is not their fault.

But it is - and they have a few brief months to prove me wrong - or they are out!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

It was about cats really

Gardens I have lived with – part 3

My next garden was a bit larger, in a more leafy suburb of Nottingham, the town that I grew up in.

There was no front garden, just car standing.  The back garden was quite long and separated from my neighbours by fairly low brick walls.  There was the obligatory lawn border to the left hand side with a few shrubs, to the right of the lawn was a concrete slab path and a border containing a grapevine.  The previous owners had planted this and were suitably proud of it.  Grapes did used to form, but never got beyond being hard pea like things.  Notions of wine-making production were soon dashed.  

To the rear of the lawn there was a large vegetable patch lined with gooseberry bushes.  The vegetable patch elicited some vague veg planting by then husband.  I remember in particular the planting of Kohn Rabi.  Neither of us knew what it was or what should be done with it.  When it matured (well, it may or may not have matured, we couldn’t tell) – it looked so alien that nothing happened with it.

The main period of our time in that house related to the birth of our two children.  Consequently I confess that virtually no gardening went on that I can remember.  I do recall planting some pulmonarias which I was really quite fond of.  Ground cover and lazy planting was the order of the day.  
The garden was for the children to play in and not much else.  I look at this photograph though and see a brigher, more colourful border than I remember.  In fairness I maintained it rather than actually did anything with it.   The garden was just sort of ‘there’.  Probably the garden I did least with – sorry.

Please note- none of these photographs are of the garden, they are photographs of Polly near a grapevine, Claude near a gooseberry bush and Becky walking up the garden.  I find it fascinating that when I look through my photograph albums I can see where my priorities/interests were/are.  So at this point, pre-children, lots of photographs of cats.  My next few albums are full of my children growing up with some cats involved.  Now, photographs of the garden, my children (of course) and yes, still cats.   If only I could get them altogether in one photograph.......