Thursday, 20 July 2017

A pilgrimage to Munstead Wood

This story begins many years ago, way back when in the mists of time when I was just in the early days of my total obsession with gardening and the colleague told me that she was a great fan of Gertrude Jeykll.  This was so long ago that Google was not a thing and it took me a little hunting around to find information on who Gertrude Jekyll was.  I was intrigued and bought a book or three.  Some by Gertrude Jekyll and some about her.  I read a lot about Munstead Wood, Gertrude's own garden, but at that time it was not open to the public and I regretted that it was a garden I would never see.

Time moves on and I read that Munstead Wood is now being restored and open sometimes to the public.  It then moved properly onto the list of 'must visit' gardens.  I noted where it was on a map and it was close enough to be doable in a day.  I waited for the opportunity to arise.  Arise it did in the shape of an AllHorts visit.  'Would anyone be interested in a visit to Munstead Wood?' went the conversation; 'me me me me' was my response.  A date was set that worked with my plans for a weekend 'down south' and I looked forward to the day.

The day arrived and I headed towards Godalming.  We were greeted by Annabel Watts, the head gardener at Munstead Wood as visits are soley run as guided tours.  This is very much a private house and access to the garden is by prior appointment and only as a guided tour.
The House and Garden were built as a collaboration between Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Lutyens and was completed in 1895.  It was built as a home for Gertrude and also it was very much a showcase of their work.  Gertrude began gardening the 15 acre site before work on the house commenced.  The house and garden was always a commercial venture.  Gertrude sold flowers and flower seeds, she trialed plants and of course, she also designed planting schemes, all from Munstead Wood.
It is the most beautiful house in a perfect setting.  The sun shone on us even though there had been threats of rain and thunder.

We were talked through the design principles that Gertrude used.  It was fascinating to see what I had read about so much in reality.  What was extraordinary is that this garden largely disappeared after Gertrude's death.  Her nephew inherited the property but for various reasons including WW2, the business and property became too costly to run.  The house was sold and the land sold off in lots.  Today Munstead Wood itself is a 10 acre plot and much of the garden was lawned over.  Following the big storm in the late 1989 the then gardener got permission from the owners to start restoring Gertrude's masterpiece.  The lines of the borders still showed in places and they had the many photographs that Gertrude herself had taken of the garden (and developed herself in her purpose built darkroom in the house).  For the last thirty years this restoration has been taking place and the results are astounding.
This is the primrose garden.  Stop for a moment, think about that, how awesome it must be to have a primrose garden.

As you walk around the gardens you recognise the features that made Jekyll and Lutyens the force in design that they were.

But it was probably here, at Gertrude's long borders, that I really went into 'I'm not worthy' mode. Annabel explained that this border is maintained exactly to Gertrude's design.  It is not low maintenance by any measure, but who wants low maintenance when you can have this?  I could have stood here for hours taking in how well the plants work with each other.  It works at the detail and at the over-view effect level.
and I have to show you this, this is a massive hedgy cat.  It was quite a surprise to see it and it did make me smile.
An important part of the gardens is the wilderness part, that is full of trees and woodland underplanting.  Before the gardens were restored this area was tennis courts and a horse pasture.  The trees are mostly under thirty years old which makes the fact that it looks quite mature rather impressive.
We spent a little time at the greenhouses that Gertrude had built.  They are sited in a sun trap and were very warm.
We then wandered down the lane and various parts of the original garden that are now belonging to neighbours from when the land was sold off were pointed out to us.  This is the thunder tower.  If it was starting to thunder, Gertrude would 'run' to this tower and watch the lightening show over the south downs.  I say run, it is a fair distance from the house so I assume she was fast on her feet.  This actually brings me to an important point.  When Gertrude bought this land she was in her early 50s.  If, like me, you have only seen photographs of her as an old woman it is hard to imagine her being younger.  The only pictures I have in my head of her are as quite elderly and her gardening boots.
We visited the local church where Gertrude, her brother and sister in law are buried. This tomb was designed by Lutyens and I have to admit I was astonished to see it.  I don't know what I expected, but not this.  I think it is a truly fitting memorial.

I have to give a huge thanks to Annabel for showing us around and also to Andrew and all the AllHorts for such a great day.  As I drove on to my next destination I realised I was smiling to myself and thinking how lucky I was to have had such a great time.  Days like this have to be remembered and treasured.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Feature article: Automatic Watering and Irrigation Systems from

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We all know how unpredictable the weather is and how much we enjoy talking about that unpredictability.  If you are a gardener then the weather is your best friend and your worst enemy often both at the same time.  We want sun, so the temperature scorches up to 34deg.  We want rain, we either get drought or floods.  The words ‘happy medium’ and ‘weather’ rarely go together.  A bit of help is what us gardeners often need and the website offers us just that.  They sell a range of automatic watering systems and irrigation systems that are perfect for seeing us through these fluctuations in weather.

If you grow plants in containers and/or if you have a greenhouse, you know the stress that going away on holiday this time of year can bring.  Who do you trust enough to water your precious plants and get it right?  An automatic watering system can take away this worry.  There many different types of automatic watering systems; there are sprinklers that will cover a large space, which in my view would be really useful for vegetable growing.  Soaker and weeper systems also are a useful aid to vegetable growing, they can be laid along the growing lines of plants and will deliver the right amount of water to where it is needed.  There are also spider drippers, which are perfect for baskets, tubs and individual plants.  With the addition of a timer and an adjustable drip control you can set up the system and disappear on your holiday worry free.  For house plants there are spike and globe systems that simply and efficiently help see the plants through our periods of absence. 

Whilst routinely I am found in the garden with my trusty watering can, an automatic watering system would be a boon for when I am not around.  I grow a lot of plants in pots and my Courtyard Garden in particular is completely container based.  I worry about these plants more than the ones in the garden as they rely more on me to provide the water they need. 
Of course you might want an irrigation system for use for other than just holiday time.  The unpredictability of our weather means that we always have dry periods just when we do not want them.  Sometimes a significant dry period that means we need to consider carefully how we will deliver water to our important plants.  We sometimes have times in our lives when regular watering is either not easy or possible.  If we work then busy periods can take over, and times of illness can mean that it is either not possible or that our priorities change.   easy has an extensive range and I can speak with confidence about this as I reviewed a micro-watering kit for them back in 2014: 

Automatic watering systems and irrigation systems can be simple or more complicated, they can be on a timer or more constantly in use.  It depends completely on how you want to use them.  We all have a responsibility to ensure that water is not wasted and these automatic systems can help us use up to 80% less water than if we use a traditional hope-pipe approach.  The water goes where it is needed and at the rate that is most optimal to have effect.  In truth many of us water our plants poorly.  We often do not deliver enough water to the roots and this can weaken how the plant grows.  It the water is not getting deep enough it can encourage the root system to grow closer to the surface rather than reaching deeper into the soil.  Careful use of automatic watering systems and irrigation systems can help alleviate this.

More information and advice on automatic watering and irrigation systems can be found here: 

The easy watering website can be found here:

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Garden Museum Literary Festival at Boughton House

Regular readers will know that the Garden Museum Literary Festival is one of my favourite, favourite events.  Last year was a fallow year probably due to the extensive redevelopment of the Garden Museum itself.  This year however it was back on and so tickets were purchased as I was not going to miss it.  This year it was held at Boughton House in Northampton.  I have not visited Boughton previously and it was a delight to have the event within an hour of home.
Boughton House is described as the English Versailles, it is one of the homes of the Duke of Buccleuch and is notable as it is virtually unchanged since the eighteenth century.  This means the grounds very interesting and historically important.  When you first arrive you are greeted by views of lawns and trees that seem formal yet difficult to quite see what you are looking at.  You can see there is a pattern, but at ground level it is difficult to fully determine.  The first talk I attended at the Literary Festival was given by Kim Wilkie, who has created a masterpiece of a land form for the current Duke.  This landform sits within the history and spirit of the grounds perfectly.  Kim explained that the gardens are based on the 'golden section', an algebraic form that was greatly prized in the 'Age of Enlightenment'.   When seen from the air, something the eighteenth century creators could not do, you can see how the design works and suddenly it is like light dawning.  It is breathtakingly clever.  Kim also superimposed the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci onto the plans and it all fitted into place.  The purpose of Kim's talk was particularly to explain the role of his work, Orpheus, into this history and design.  It was the most compelling talk and the clear respect and friendship between Kim and the Duke was truly good to see.

I found Orpheus to be a massive experience.  It is seven metres deep to mirror the seven metre high mound that already existed as part of the grand canal gardens.  The reflections working within the cubes transfixed me.  I know that this work was contentious at the time it was created but being able to see and experience it made me appreciate it. Kim described it as Marmite, I like Marmite too.

Boughton is not all green, there is much to see including formal borders and a circular rose garden.  I mention that the rose garden is circular because the grounds are largely laid out in squares and rectangles (golden section, remember).

There are also two large walled gardens, one laid over to flowers.  There were so many bees and butterflies there I was astounded.  I think I saw more on that walk then I have all year so far.  The second walled garden is laid over to food production, vegetables and an orchard.
I was delighted to see this display of alpines, a nice nod to Valerie Finnis who had lived in the Dower House for many years with her husband David Scott.  There was a really interesting talk about Valerie and David given by Ursula Buchan and Anna Pavord.  It was a talk with real affection for them and if a measure of people is how much they are loved, then these were clearly very special people.
Back to squares, the lily pond is a perfect square and I was very interested by the green steps leading away from it.  I could not see from this distance what made them green, I assumed moss.
I assumed incorrectly, they are lined with box.  What a great effect.
I looked to my left and there was a tempted opening that led me to what is best described as 'down the rabbit hole', into a wonderful of the wilderness planting of trees and shrubs.

Unexpected topiary could be found as the paths led me on.
and then the house opens up in front of you again.

As ever the talks were all really interesting and entertaining.  What I love about this weekend is the ability to learn and to completely relax.

Of course there is a lot more to see of the grounds.

and there was a plant stall as well, I only bought two plants, I thought that was very well-behaved of me.
I am now looking forward to next year with great anticipation.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A scented day at David Austin Roses

It will not have escaped regular readers or my followers on Twitter/instragram that I am rather fond of roses.  I have quite a few in the garden and if I had the space I would have even more.  As a proud member of the Garden Media Guild when I saw they were organising a trip to David Austin Roses I knew I had find the time to go along.  I have briefly visited David Austin's Albrighton nursery a couple of years ago, but the temptation of a behind the scenes visit was just too good to resist.
We were greeted by Jo Bird from the nursery and the Head Rosarian (such a great title) Michael Marriott.  Michael gave us a potted history of how David Austin became a rose developer and of the nursery itself.  It was, as most histories are, really interesting and one that reminds you of those things you had not realised you had sort of forgotten.  Before David Austin, the roses you could buy for your gardens in the UK were generally Hybrid Tea Roses.  They repeat flowered but they often had little scent and generally could suffer from disease.  The 1950s/60s was a time when using chemicals to control garden pests/diseases was the thing to do, despite most if not all of these chemicals now being known to be more harmful to the environment and to people than most of us would now wish to risk.  (I am just going to mention here the seminal book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, it remains as important now as it was when it was written).  David wanted to develop a disease resistant, scented, repeat flowering rose that looked like an old rose.  His first introduction was 'Constance Spry' in the early 1960s.  It took another twenty years before his ideas really began to catch the public's eye.  The Graham Thomas rose in particular in the early 1980s was a break-through.  They now grow around 2 to 3 million roses a year all over the world and the business is still sited in what was David's grandfather's farm.  The company remains a family concern, David Austin is now 91 and three generations work for the company.
We were shown around the greenhouses, which were packed full of seedlings and growing on roses waiting to see if they would be selected to actually become a sellable rose.  They produce around 120,000 seedlings a year.  Apparently roses are very easy to cross pollinate, but of course many do not make the grade.
This is Michael explaining the process to us.  Out of the 120,000 seedlings possibly only eight, yes eight, will get through to sales.  They sow the seeds in September, they will flower the following April (they are forced a little to flower early) and then if they seem worthwhile in year two they are planted into the field.
The field is the school of hard knocks.  The soil is poor and sandy, not what roses like ideally.  They hope that every disease and pest will come at them in the field so they can see how they handle them.  It take around ten years from that first seedling to actually being sold.  It was completely fascinating.  When asked what makes a good David Austin rose the simple answer was, one we like the look of.
We were then let loose into the gardens, that are set out in different styles to show the roses to their best aspect.  There are formal rose garden areas and also areas where roses are planted within perennials in a more relaxed cottage-garden type way.
This is Rose Vanessa Bell that has been introduced this year.  It is a beaut.  All around the gardens there is the most delicious scent.  It is impossible to walk around without bending and sniffing the roses.  I found myself comparing colours, shapes and scents and then find it impossible to choose only one to be favourite.
The gardens also contain many sculptures by the late Pat Austin, who was David Austin's wife.  They make an important addition to the gardens.
We were also privileged to be allowed to visit David Austin's private garden.  It was no surprise to see these wonderful roses climbing up the barn.
The garden itself has recently been developed and the pond is relatively new.  It was a good mix of formal and informal and at the bottom of the garden is, course, a fantastic rose garden.
and there are more sculptures by Pat Austin that are perfectly placed.
The day ended with a wander around the species rose garden, where there were so many treats to see and sniff.  The species roses have a simplicity and style that is hard not to love.  They are also adored by bees who can find their way easily into their open simple flowers. I grow species and old fashioned style shrub roses, they both have their place in my garden.
We had the most wonderful day and I am very grateful to the Garden Media Guild for organising it and for all at David Austin roses for making us so welcome.  I already have many of their roses, I left trying to work out where I could fit in some more.