Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Book Review: All the Presidents' Gardens by Marta McDowell

I was really interested to review this new book 'All the Presidents' Gardens' by Marta McDowell because of, and this might sound odd, my general lack of knowledge of US Presidents.  At the time I am writing this we are on the verge of the next Presidential election so the news is full of the various selection processes and stories about the candidates.  When I say lack of knowledge I mean that I lack historical knowledge of Presidents.  It can be summed as I know a little about a few.

 I confess further that until this book my knowledge of Presidents and plants was limited to knowing that George H W Bush did not like broccoli and reading somewhere that Michelle Obama was planting vegetables in the White House garden.  I think I also vaguely knew something about a rose garden but that was about it.  I think that knowing about people's gardens helps understand the person.  Even though the White House is only lived in when they are the President, it would appear from the book that it is no less a home and no less shaped by its occupants to be what they want to see when they look out of the window.
The book is a detailed history of the house, garden and the relationship of its occupants to its gardens.  It starts as the house is built and the gardens are established within the political context of the time.  The French and British influences on the early design of the garden are fascinating to read about.  As is the knowledge that initially the gardens were also part public park.  Security reasons now mean that this is not as open as it was but you can still go on tours of the grounds.

The book is linear in its time line and each section takes you through a few Presidents and their first first ladies when applicable.  The House has been occupied since 1800 and as Presidents and their families have moved through it some more than others have left their mark.  Some parts of the gardens remain and some parts, like the conservatories, were sadly fairly short lived.  You get a feeling for the likes/dislikes of the Presidents and what they have contributed and what they have removed and created.

I thought about what the UK equivalent would be to these gardens.  I started to think that it might be Buckingham Palace but that has had a totally different occupancy as it has been related to life-times and not to periods of office.  I wondered whether then Number 10 Downing Street was a better likeness.  Number 10 does have a garden yet we rarely if ever see it.  It is not part of the narrative of  UK government whereas the White House lawns are very much a part of how the Presidency is represented.  I found this a very interesting comparison to consider.

There are photographs, paintings and plans of the gardens.  The photographs have an eerie quality as there are often no people to be seen so nothing to date when the photograph was taken.  Towards the end of the book are short biographies of the 'First Gardeners', the gardeners at the White House.  There are also plant lists detailing what was planted in 1809, 1900 and 2008.  This also gives a fascinating insight.

As the book moves through the Presidents and their effect on the gardens it becomes clear that recent Presidents have seen their role increasingly as one of preservation.  The White House and its gardens have a central historical role to the founding of democracy in and of the country.

I also thought further about the Presidents that have been in power whilst I have been alive.  The first President I can remember is Nixon.  His legacy in the garden does seem minimal, he must have been busy doing something else.

It is a book that gives us a view on the people who have taken on this incredibly powerful role from a totally different point of view.  One cannot help but wonder what the next occupant will bring to the garden?  I can thoroughly recommend this book, it is truly fascinating.

All the Presidents' Gardens is published by Timberpress  

In the interests of transparency I was sent a review copy of this book.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Iford Manor: an Italianate gem

There is something about saving the best until last, there is also something about not knowing that you were saving the best until last but it turns out that you did.

I knew as I arrived that was I was going to see somewhere special.  As you approach Iford Manor there is this most wonderful bridge with a statue of Britannia looking out over the river.
When I am getting excited about a visit by looking at the bridge in front of it, I know I am going to be in for a treat.  I still though did not appreciate how much of a treat it would be.
I worked out pretty quickly that as part of my trip to Devon that I could stop off at Iford Manor on the way home.  I had placed Iford on my list of must-see gardens some time ago as I knew it to be a fine Italianate garden, and I do love a good Italianate garden.
The gardens were designed by Harold Peto who first visited the house with Henry Avray Tipping in 1899.  Yes, there he is again in the centre of a story about a fine Arts and Crafts garden.  My trip to Devon started with Avray Tipping and it was fitting that there was a reference to him at its conclusion.  Peto lived at Iford from 1899 until his death in 1933.  Peto trained as an architect; at the heart of many a good Arts and Crafts garden is an architect (Lutyens, Clough Williams Ellis, shall I go on....?)
The gardens are magnificent.  There is no better word to use.  The 2.5 acres of the gardens are steep with terraces and pathways.  You wander from level to level finding new wonders at each turn.
and there are wonders.   I loved this garden, I loved this garden to the point that I was cross with myself for leaving it until last.  I know I have to return soon to visit as I had not really got enough time to appreciate it properly.  There was even a moment when I considered keeping driving to get home.  I am so glad that I resisted that moment.
I did have enough time for tea and cake though.  They sell tea at Iford, this means that they have extremely good tea and cake.  I had a pot of the organic lavender Earl Grey, which is very much what a friend of mine would call 'poncy tea'.  It was divine, that is the only word I can use for it.  When I got home I immediately ordered some.  They sell lots of different kinds of tea, I feel some tea exploration coming on.
Like most really great gardens, the thing that becomes apparent is that you need to see it in the other seasons.  Iford had many wisterias and I can only begin to imagine how wonderful the scent would be when it was in full flower.
This role of elderly wisterias are opposite the front of the house.  They were beautifully shaped and pruned.  They were clearly well looked after.
There is so much to this garden and I have made no attempt to show it all.  It really is a 'go and see for yourself' garden.

I arrived home tired from the journey but I had such a great time visiting so many wonderful places. Now I have to think about where I have to wander off to next.

Other visits related to this trip:

Wyndcliffe Court

Buckfast Abbey


Hauser and Wirth,

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Viburnum Kilimanjaro Sunrise = with added earworm

"The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" *

A week or so ago (time flies) I visited the Thompson and Morgan Open Gardens and one of the plants I came away with was Viburnum Kilimanjaro Sunrise.  
It is only a baby, it came in a 9cm pot so I popped into a new pot with a bit of fresh compost and put it into the Courtyard. It is not big enough to be out in the wide world of the garden just yet, it is a mere babe of a plant.  It is a healthy little babe, even after the week or so I have had it, it is already producing new leaves.

As I was potting it up and letting my mind wander (as it does) I realised I was singing about Kilimanjaro rising above the Serengeti to myself.  The wise words of the lyrics of 'Africa' by Toto.  Now the clever clogs amongst you will start saying that you cannot see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti but that, as they say, is not the point.  The more I realised what I was humming the more the earworm embedded itself.

and there it is, fixed in my head.  I only have to look at the plant and I am singing it again.  So I thought I would share it with you, share the joy..........

"I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had"*

(*Written by David Gerges, Ken Kiprono Ring • Copyright © Spirit Music Group, Universal Music Publishing Group)

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Irritating Plant of the Month -August 2016

Ok now this one is really annoying because it has proved me right.  There are few things as irritating as giving a plant a chance against your better judgement and then it proves to you why you had an issue with it in the first place.
I present to you Fatsia japonica 'Spiders Web' which I bought a few weeks ago.  Look at it - it is horribly bleached.  Now I know some of you will start shaking your heads and saying things like 'its getting too much sun', 'it needs more shade', 'it's your fault you have put it in the wrong place'.  I can only concur but that does not make me any less irritated.  Its almost as annoying as  'I told you so'.

I knew that this plant did not want a lot of sun and I chose a spot where I thought it would form part of the understory.  I knew that as the other plants grew up around it they would provide the shade it needed.  Well they have not grown over quick enough and hence the bleaching.  Thankfully starting to colour up a bit again now in which case when it has it can consider itself redeemed.

I am not sure who I am most irritated by - the plant or myself.

Rant over.

Product Review: Sleeper Bench from Buy Fencing Direct

I was approached by the very nice people from Buy Fencing Direct to see if I would like to review a product for them and take part in an interview on their blog: Green Gardens, which I was very happy to say yes to.

It did not take me long to decide which product I wanted to trial, the Sleeper Bench 1.2m.  I have been on the quest for the right bench for about five years.  I had decided a while ago which type of bench I thought I wanted, the lack of progress had been mainly about finding the right one and getting around to sorting it out.  I decided that being invited to trial one was serendipity.
The bench quickly arrived with no fuss.  The delivery driver rang me to ask directions when he could not find my address.  I always appreciate it when they do this rather than just give up and go back to base, so I have to give a special mention for good service.
I unpacked the bench and did that thing I do not do often enough, I read the instructions.  The instructions are very simple.
I reckon it was twenty minutes later and ta da!
The bench was soon installed by the pond.  The bench is made of solid wood and this was actually the hardest part of the process as it is rather heavy.  It is made of FSC certified wood mix from sustainable sources and it guaranteed not to rot for 15 years.
I can now, at last, sit by the pond and drink tea.
It took about three minutes for Bruce to join me to see if he approved of the new bench.  I would take that as a yes.

In short, I can fully recommend this bench.  It is genuinely easy to fit together and solid enough that it looks like it will last quite a while.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Piet Oudolf Meadow at Hauser and Wirth, Somerset

As I continued home from my visit to Devon I planned in a couple of stop-offs on the way back.  This  would enable me to a) rest from driving and b) eat.  Well, that was the plan anyway.

First stop was to see the Piet Oudolf gardens at Hauser and Wirth Gallery in Somerset.  I intended to get lunch here as well as see the gardens.  It also had the added bonus of taking me across country away from the motorways which were pretty much clogged up with traffic on a busy Saturday for the roads.
Before you actually enter the gallery you can see the vegetable borders outside, presumably for the restaurant.  This is rather a nice touch.
I rather liked the weathervane too, I believe it to be of Erasmus sitting the wrong way on a horse, reading a book, as you do.
Into the courtyard and there are massive sculptures shining in the sun.
I loved this tree, but I was not here to see trees, I was here to see the Piet Oudolf meadow so I got my bearings and headed out to the gardens.
The meadow spreads out in front of you, with paths that take you through to the pavillion at the end.
There is a shallow pool of water that reflects the planting well.
and the planting is rather wonderful.
It was full of colour and alive with bees and butterflies. I thought that the shell of a building on the skyline made a great focal point.
The Radic Pavilion draws you on through the garden.  It floats above the planting and leads you towards it.
Inside the pavilion you look out, across the planting, to the car park where on this day the cars sparkled like jewels.
I enjoyed my wander around the garden.  I did not manage to get lunch, it was a very busy day when I was there and I had not time to stay for a long lunch.

It was definitely worth the visit and a very good stop off on a long journey.  Maybe next time I will go into the galleries but I had not got time on this trip.

I was however delighted to find....
.... a tribute to Bon Jovi's third album.

Other visits on this trip:

Wyndcliffe Court

Buckfast Abbey


Iford Manor

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Wildside - the return

I first visited Wildside waybackwhen, well, about seven years ago  I think.  It made quite an impression on me and I knew I wanted to return.  I knew it was not in a finished state and the thought of returning to see progress made it even more exciting.

Four years ago I decided I would return to Devon.  Top of my list to visit was Wildside.  Sadly I planned the visit without checking when the garden was open.  It does not open in a regular pattern and I missed the window of opportunity.  I had a great time in Devon but I still wanted to get back to Wildside.

Fast forward to this year and I found out that the garden was going to be open for two weeks only:  One in June and one in July.  June was impossible but July was doable.  It was more than doable, I was determined it was going to happen.  Plans made, itinerary decided, I set off.
You walk into the garden and the paths wind away in front of you.  I think it is impossible not to stop for a moment and just take it all in.  You look across a sea of colour and you are driven to explore.  You reach some dead-ends but it is ok, you wind your way back and the garden looks different depending on which direction you are going.  At some points you can see where you want to go, but you take a few attempts to get there.  It is quite magical.
There are areas where the planting works incredibly well.
As I walked around parts of the garden flooded back to my memory.  I remembered the conifers, so out of fashion yet being used very effectively.  These ones were larger than I remembered though, could it be they had grown.....?
I love this breathing space in the garden, where the colour and chaos stop for a moment and you can let yourself rest.  This is good and necessary.  I think this space is somehow what makes the whole area feel like a garden.  I am not sure I can even explain this comment, but it is something to do with giving the garden a core, a heart even.
There are still the areas that are not finished.  This was a bit disappointing to be honest.  This area of the garden did not appear to have moved on.
The ponds that there had been were almost overgrown. The planting was beautiful but the break for water was missed.
The Courtyard was looking very good, better in fact than I had remembered.  It had felt a bit unfinished when I last saw it, probably because it was.
I went through the Courtyard and up into the 'new planting area'.
Wowsers, just wowsers,
It is the most fantastic planting.  I was in seventh heaven again.
The colours and forms all worked together perfectly,
This was the excitement I had felt on my first visit.  I had walked around the original part of the garden enjoying it, yet not being as wowed  as when I first visited.  Now the wow was back.  I did wonder if it was because I had seen it before and therefore it was no longer new or was it just that there are only so many hours in the day and creating a new area of the garden is a large undertaking?
and through the fence was work still yet to be done.  Was this the next big part of the project?

I enjoyed my visit, it was my sole reason for going to Devon, with the other stops being just part of the journey.  I will return to this comment in a later post on this trip (a touch of mystery for you there).  I will also return to Wildside again as I still find the prospect of watching it develop as exciting.  I remain of the opinion that it is one of the most interesting and innovative gardens I have visited.

Other posts relating to this trip

Wyndcliffe Court

Buckfast Abbey

Hauser and Wirth

Iford Manor

Wordless Wednesday - Nigella Delft Blue

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Product Review - Stihl Compact Cordless Grass Trimmer FSA 56

The extremely nice people at Stihl asked me if I wanted to trial a couple of their products.  It did not take me long to decide which ones I wanted to try.  Firstly I shall talk about the Cordless Grass Trimmer, I will write about the other product soon.

I had to go to pick up my products from a local dealer.  I chose Farol Ltd who are based in Hinckley.  They have other branches as well.  They do deserve a special mention as they could not have been more friendly or more helpful.  Whilst it does not take long to talk through how to use the grass trimmer, they did so and made sure I was happy with it.
So I arrived home with the battery, charger and safety glasses.  It is surprising how much stuff gets whizzed up into the air by a strimmer and looking daft in some plastic glasses is better than having to get something dislodged from your eye.
The trimmer itself is telescopic so you can make it shorter or longer depending on what feels most comfortable.  It is quite light, the majority of the weight comes from the battery. It weighs 3.3kg including battery, so that is just over three bags of flour, so not bad. Most importantly it is well balanced, so it is comfortable to use.
The battery has a double click system.  You fit it into the trimmer and it clicks. This means you can walk around with it quite safely and it will not turn on.
When you want to use it you give it a further push and it clicks further into place.  It can now be used.
There is a handy indicator on the battery so you can see how much charge you have at the press of a button.  I liked this as it takes the guess-work out of it.

I then wandered out to try out the trimmer.  I knew exactly where I needed to try it.
The veg borders, the paths were overgrown and...
...the nettles were taking over.  I have an endless supply of nettles and if you look away for a moment they take advantage.

So I trimmed them.  All of them.
Ta da! This took around twenty minutes.  The trimmer has an automatic feed for the trimming-line. You tap the trimmer-head on the floor and a bit more line pops out.  This works fairly well but you do have to keep an eye on it.  If it gets too short then it will not work automatically.  It is quite straightforward to manually increase the feed and as you can click the battery to the safe position easily and quickly it is not a big issue.  Trimming the nettles in particular was quite a tough job so I did get through quite a bit of line, but I still have plenty left.
The nettle patch looks much better.  I am going to keep it more in control now (promise).  I feel even  more motivated to keep it in control now I do not have to get the extension cable out, unwind it, plug it in etc.  I think I am a complete battery convert!
At the end of the twenty minutes it took to do the task I still had two bars left.  I thought this was rather good.

The trimmer is part of Stihl's new cordless range.  The really clever thing about this range is that all the batteries fit each other.  So if you have two products you automatically have a spare you can have on standby for if you want to do more than just the one battery will allow.  I am a great believer in two batteries and not having to buy a special spare I think it is a very good thing.

The RRP for the Grass Trimmer is around £200, you can find it for less if you have a shop around.