Both of us were staring at the same wall mounted moss collage in a corner of the Grand Marquee at the Chelsea Flower Show. We got chatting and I found that my new acquaintance was no less than Sue Fisher, the author of ‘Growing up the Wall’.
Green walls have taken off in a big way as a means of introducing flora to sterile concrete places, to insulate buildings and now as a means of feeding ourselves.
Well, here is a subject for all keen gardeners short on space. Sue Fisher has written many books on gardening and she has a serious background in horticulture. No surprise then that ‘Growing up the Wall’ is a serious manual for the would-be vertical grower. The full title of the book is “How to grow food in vertical places, on roofs and in small places.” Only last week, I had a question on how to use a little balcony that gets some sun. This book answers that question and many more as well.
Part two runs through suitable edible vegetables, herbs and fruit by alphabetic listing. You will learn the necessary soil depth, the overall height of the plant and get tips on sowing, varieties and aftercare.
Balconies apart, the text tackles all sorts of containers and growing spaces – everything from window boxes and hanging baskets to full-blown edible roof gardens. This is a really handy book. Knowledge is given without it being daunting.
After reading this book I will grow up.
You can read my own blog here
Crops for a Cool Climate
Over the years in which climate change has been discussed in the media, there have been continual suggestions that it will be of benefit to gardeners – allowing us to grow fruit and vegetable crops that enjoy the continental climate, but fail to thrive in a traditional British summer. As those warm summer days have failed to materialise, and look increasing unlikely, I am eyeing up my new allotment with a view to planting crops that will enjoy our cool climate.
Spuds are a good choice, as potatoes don’t need a lot of sun to do well, but the possibility of warm, humid periods means blight is a big risk and I’m going to try growing resistant Sarpo varieties in place of old favourites.
Perennial veg and fruit are always good choices, as they don’t rely on one season’s weather to provide a crop. Rhubarb is an allotment staple that usually does well, and red and white currants need far less sun to fruit well than blackcurrants. Asparagus is designed to start growing in cool weather. Globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes and Chinese artichokes are usually worth the space they take up.
I’ve had success with courgettes and summer squash in a lacklustre summer, but good crops of fruit are not guaranteed. Tomatoes are tricky unless the sun comes out, but the smaller the fruit, the more likely they are to ripen. Sub-Arctic Plenty is a determinate, cherry tom variety that was bred to crop outdoors in Greenland, and I’ve found it reliably does so here as well.
Leafy veg love wetter weather, and if I can keep the slugs off then spinach and chard, cabbages and all of the Oriental leaf vegetables will keep me in greens for months. Leafy herbs like mint, coriander and parsley should also do well, but basil will be happier on the kitchen windowsill.
There’s no reason I have to stay on the beaten track, either, as there are more unusual species from around the world that will have no problem with this weather. Achocha, one of the Lost Crops of the Incas, is a climbing plant that romps away in cool summers and produces masses of fruit that can be used like green peppers. Oca, or New Zealand Yam, (another native of South America) is a pretty, clumping root crop. It doesn’t need a hot summer to crop well, although it does benefit from a long autumn and a mild frost or two before the big freeze begins.
Edible flowers are all the rage this year, and calendula and borage both self-seed quite happily in my garden, adding splashes of colour to borders and dinners throughout the summer. I’ll be introducing those to the allotment as well, and it wouldn’t be complete without a few nasturtiums, which seem to flower well regardless of the weather and have edible leaves to boot.
Borage and bee
Every year is different, and each autumn it’s interesting to see what has done well and what faltered. What have been your big winners, in the cooler summers of recent years?
I have been to Chelsea before – I have always loved it and I’m sure I always will. Never before have I felt so excited about going as I did this year. The last time I went to Chelsea, it was the second day and I went with one of my best friends, a florist who runs a fantastic florist shop in Berkshire called Green Parlour. My friend Emma had got the tickets for us and we had a wonderful day looking around the show together – looking for inspiration for her floral designs. This year was quite different. I had been lucky enough to be accepted for Press Day and I was so excited to be able to see the showground, whilst it was still quiet before the gates opened to the general public the following day.
The fantastic Get Well Soon garden at Chelsea this year
Walking around the grounds so early in the morning was wonderful, and gave me the chance to speak to the garden designers and exhibitors as they were putting the finishing touches to their displays. You could tell how much work had gone into their exhibits and although they were clearly nervous waiting for the judges to come around, everyone was so friendly and keen to speak to me about their gardens.
There are so many things that I love about Chelsea – I love to see what medals have been awarded and I love to listen to the opinions that people have of the gardens as they speak to their friends. Every garden will divide opinion and it’s easy to see why. There is such a range of different gardens that they will never be to everyone’s taste. For me, the larger show gardens are hard for me to get passionate about. It’s not that I don’t think they are beautiful – I do! I find it hard to draw inspiration from them though, as they are so different to my own garden. The artisan gardens are a different matter though, they are about the right size for my garden at home. I can find so many things in them that I would like to bring home to my own garden.
The wonderful “Get Well Soon” garden by The National Botanic Garden of Wales was fantastic – full of things to show us that gardening is good for our health. I chatted to the ladies who were putting their finishing touches to the garden, who were all very friendly and I will definitely be going down to visit them in the garden in Wales.
The Grand Pavilion is another fantastic part of Chelsea – there are displays from nurseries from up and down the country. It’s a great way to look at plants that you might want to order as bulbs. The scent is indescribable and hits you as soon as you walk in.
I’m already counting the days until next year!
Was buying a house called “Brambles” an omen? (Part three)
“Every snow drift has a silver lining?” or “Is it true that gardeners are the world’s greatest optimists?”
If you are inclined to classify yourself as British on those forms we all have to complete every now and again, then I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve got a socially engineered propensity to bang on about the weather as much as possible. And if you’re further inclined to put “gardening” down as one of your hobbies or interests then I’m going to increase my bet that you in particular like nothing better than a good analysis of what the climate (micro and macro) is up to and the effect it is having on your plants. I feel fairly safe in making these sweeping generalisations – I am a happy member of this simplification – as I think that these past 12 months of weather have given British gardeners much to muse over and ruminate on.
According to the BBC Weather website this year the normal signs of spring’s arrival have been delayed by approximately one month and that March was colder still than December and January together – the coldest March since 1987 (nearly rivalling the infamous “ice-age” winter of 1962 of which I am happy to report I am too young to have experienced). It is certainly true that winter was refusing to exit stage left as per the normal stage instructions. So as the back-curtain is edged down and winter takes his final bow and swaggers slowly towards the side wings I thought I would write up a few observations about how my garden here at Brambles has fared. As I raise my head from the daily grind of work, school runs and housework it seems to me that the year has been on fast-forward and I am confounded at the fact that we are practically halfway through the year already. Look outside however and nature has decided to ignore this. There is no interest in the Gregorian calendar months that are slipping by and being in the garden at the moment is to experience a degree of time travel – back to approximately early April depending upon where you live.
This “extra time” is an absolute gift that the weather systems have conspired to hand to me. You see, my garden is invariably left to its own devices from mid-October through to early March. There are definitely months during most winters where the garden will not see me at all! This is generally down to the fact that I work full-time and so weekday gardening is just not possible in the short days and that the run up to Christmas is beyond crazy-busy with my two children having social diaries that would exhaust the Queen! During this five month absence therefore my garden happily decays back in on itself, flopping inwardly against the cold and attempting to revert back to its ‘field’ status. It reminds me of Greta Garbo – “I want to be alone” – actually rather pleased to remain out of the limelight and enjoying the enforced reclusive hibernation away from me. Meanwhile I stand forlornly at the French doors peering out, Christmas lights blinking behind me, onto the cold-shoulder of my garden, fretting that my plans are not progressing fast enough or with enough skill or fervour!
So it was with some relief that I was finally able to get outside this year and grab my obdurate, wayward garden by the shoulders and force it back towards the light-side. According to my garden journal this year that was 17th March. Only seven days later than 2012 interestingly – but feeling a whole lot later. I set about the first task of clearing all of the decay and getting down to the hard graft of weeding. The garden has five main borders in it – the largest of which runs the entire length of the plot and so is approximately 300 feet long. I try to be methodical in my weeding of these – mainly so that I remember from week to week what I’ve done. Now normally, the first run through will take from March to end of May for me to progress from the top of the garden down to the house, weeding the borders as I go. But this year I was completed by 7th April. A full four weeks earlier than 2012! Celebrations were held – documented by my ecstatic, if rather banal journal notes of “Phew! Finished! Amazed!”
This productivity is a direct result of the weather being as consistently bad and cold has it has been. Normally you see I am overtaken by the F1 roar of the perennial weeds (see my last blog post) as their turbo boosters kick in and they accelerate past me and my garden fork to put on huge leaf growth and deep, deep roots. I am usually left standing, hands on hips staring in despair thinking I am defeated – but not this year! The awful weather has dealt me a trump hand! I have had the time between the first step into the garden and the growing season really kicking in to get through the entire borders. The weeds were just lining up on the grid ready for the ‘pedals to the metal’ moment when I was able to pounce and eradicate them!
Okay – I say eradicate in the blind and comfortable denial I often like to deploy in life. Weeding is a constant cycle that means every month I have to start at the top and work my way, weekend by weekend, back down the garden, interspersed with the other more enjoyable chores – seed sowing, potting on etc. etc that needs to happen. But nevertheless I am nursing a burgeoning love of the perma-frosts we’ve suffered and a hope that every winter turns out that way. Because for the first time since moving to Brambles I have been able to feel on top of this garden and able to carve my vision more permanently and indelibly into the borders without the blurring and obfuscation of the thistles, nettles, creeping buttercup and Rosebay Willow Herb.
Whilst my hard-coded practicality is whispering that I shouldn’t be too smug, that there is time a plenty of the garden to be out of control in a jiffy again, I cannot let this breaking point go without some celebration of it and so I share with you my garden highlights of the year so far: These are pictures that I take to remind myself of the garden’s progress through the year and for my own self-aggrandisement and pleasure (my Facebook friends are quite resigned to being bombarded by the latest ‘flower of the week’ pictures in their newsfeeds!)
Hellebores – a real treat in the cold winter months
One of the first flowers to brave the winter chill – but of course ‘brave’ is the wrong adjective as, to these Hellebores Orientalis, the cold is delightful. Encouraging one to have to bend down to them and lift their flowers skyward they make the job of gardening next to them a treat – the chance to see them up close is one’s reward for the hard graft.
Narcissus “Cheerfulness” in all its Orchid-esque glory. These are not only very pretty and luxuriant they bulk up year on year very nicely and have a pleasant fragrance. They’re grown in the raised border that is on the terrace area so that it is possible to look directly into their faces. Frankly the person who named them knew what they were talking about – they make me cheerful!
Tulips – not very successful this year
Tulips have been one of my disasters this year – this specimen is the best of a rotten bunch I’m afraid. They started off looking promising and of course I was grateful to see their leaves poking up through the gravel in the pots, but as soon as they were up they have faded quickly. Did anyone else have the same experience I wonder, or is it just me being unlucky? These go down on the ‘must try harder’ next year list.
Lilac buds, blue sky, what could be better?
Emergent lilac buds against the best of sky-blues. A clear sign that spring was properly on its way and celebrated accordingly on the day it was taken. A simple but soulfully compelling shot of energy form the garden – one that I have no real part to play in other than a tickle of pruning after flowering.
Bearded iris – gorgeous blue blooms
The garden enters its blue phase. This is my one specimen of bearded iris – name unknown as it was purchased from a local charity plant sale. I am hopeful that it will bulk up quickly so that I can divide it and create more ‘exclamation marks’ of it throughout this border. They’re short lived flowers, but definitely worth it whilst they’re here. I find it hard to keep my eyes off them. Behind the Iris are the ‘local’ wallflowers; grown from seed that my Mother collected from her garden. Again; name unknown therefore, but the scent is one of the best honeyed wallflower scents I’ve had the pleasure to weed amongst. They will annoy me in their raggedly appearance as they progress to set-seed but I will put up with them so that I am able to collect that seed and keep that fragrance connection alive.
Perennial cornflowers – very hardy
Perennial Cornflowers have to have one of the best blue colours around in my humble opinion. These have been untouched by the freezing temperatures as befits their continental European heritage. I have managed to get them staked this year though to prevent them flopping about later on in the season and smothering their neighbours as they did last year.
Sweet pea frames ready for my no-fuss sweet peas
Sweet pea frames in place – as instructed by Monty Don this weekend just gone (not personally you understand, just on the telly via Gardeners’ World!). The sweet peas are also in the ground (unseen in the photo) and are ‘Navy Blue’. Grown from seed in my usual way; no pre-soaking or faffing, just put into long-tom pots to allow for good long root runs and kept in the greenhouse to give them a bit more shelter. I hope that they will produce a great show later in the summer and provide lots of cut flowers for the house. Even with last year’s wash-out summer I got quite churlishly fed-up of having to keep cutting sweet peas, the volume of flowers on them was so great. I happily look forward to getting royally annoyed with this ‘chore’ again this year!
The Mysotis (Forget-Me-Nots) this year have been stunning. Outright blankets of them spread sporadically throughout the borders giving a much wanted regular rhythm to the place. I might add that this is their own doing, not my conceit but I am happy to take the plaudits if offered! If I were Cath Kidston or one of the other famous textile designers I’d be very tempted to take this image and make some best-selling fabric out of it….
So that is a quick canter through Brambles’ gardening year so far. I wonder what your ‘upsides’ to the prolonged winter have been? I’d love to hear about them – so please do leave me a comment. As my friends and work-colleagues will confirm– I like nothing better than being able to talk horticulture.
Behind the scenes at Chelsea Flower Show 2013 (press day)
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show celebrates its centenary birthday this week, and I was very lucky to receive a press pass for Monday 21 May for a sneak preview and behind the scenes look at the most prestigious event in the gardening calendar – a money can’t buy experience for any keen gardener!
100 years of the RHS
Normally I attend as the ‘paying public’ with my husband Ian, purchasing my ticket in the middle of winter with the anticipation of warmer days ahead. With it comes the hustle and bustle of crowds of people sweeping you along from the minute you walk through the entrance gates; the brass band playing in the distance; queuing for Pimms and the ladies toilets! But yesterday was a whole new experience for me and very surreal; almost like a personal VIP visit. Walking through the gates I was surprised at how quiet it was. I stopped for a few moments to take in the calm atmosphere with people putting finishing touches to their displays; watering gardens and trade stands being stocked with everything for the home and garden.
Chris Bearshaw’s garden
I visited the artisan retreats gardens first and walked into the BBC filming for their lunchtime slot with Kim Wilde; what a scoop! I watched as the film crew stood in front of each of the eight artisan gardens and Kim pointed out plants of interest and talked to each of the designers. I also met Toby Buckland from Gardeners World
and chatted to Woolcott and Smith (NSPPC: What Will We Leave? The Garden of Magical Childhood). Their garden is designed for adults and brings fond memories of our childhoods back, with marbles and teddy bears taking centre stage. Some of the plants were grown from plugs at home in Kent. Remember the space hopper from your own childhood? Woolcott and Smith gained lots of attention and famous signatures on theirs and plan to auction this at the end of the show!
Woolcott and Smith
For me the best part of Chelsea has to be the artisan retreat gardens; I look forward to walking around the corner and seeing small spaces filled with inspiration and colour. Talented garden designers working closely with charities and organisations, often to a tight budget for just ten days to complete these perfect little spaces. You don’t need to have acres of land to make a big impact; less is definitely more. Most people who visit Chelsea are keen gardeners on a small budget who want to take home a little piece of Chelsea and incorporate it into their gardens. This can be a packet of seeds; a small idea from one of the larger gardens or gaining inspiration through plant structure and colours.
The Great Pavillion was full of colour and exhibitors showing off their prize blooms. I love to wander through browsing through a mixture of growers old and new in search of plant inspiration. It’s a great place to see the plants up close and compare them side by side. Some of the displays are very extravagant and others subtle with the plants doing the talking.
The smell of the David Austin roses should be bottled for you to take home; it is truly amazing walking through the display and the mixed scents coming together as one. I even saw Miranda Richardson admiring the beautiful roses; she looked up at me and smiled for the camera (click)!
The large show gardens were filled with cameras, wall to wall celebrities and garden designers being interviewed. It was a stark contrast to when I entered the grounds earlier in the day. The low lighting levels outside made the gardens jump out and draw you in; the colour more vibrant without the suns glare. Each garden easy to view and experience unlike on public days where you find yourself weaving in and out to get a front row seat! Instead photographers lined up calling celebrities to look their way to get the best shot. It’s quite funny walking around smiling and saying hello to people you recognise then realising it was Kirsty Allsopp or Ringo Starr!
The Conversation Garden was small and intended to be visual, it invited you to walk around the two pools symbolising social interaction and reflection. I like the idea of re-siting the garden after Chelsea to a permanent home in Tottenham, North London for everyone to enjoy. The SeeAbilty garden depicted the effects of sight loss with its creative use of colour contrasts of vibrant greens and purples. The Ginkgo biloba trees drawing your attention to the centre of the garden where a circular slate area representing the pattern of the eye’s iris – very creative and eye catching! The Homebase Garden ‘Sowing the seeds of Change’ was my overall favourite. The colours, the dividing spaces, interplanting of vegetables with perennials, and the handmade working beehive made of green oak, just stunning in every direction.
Gardening trends have changed over the past 100 years but some things are truly British – like roses, sweet peas, strawberries (and gnomes?) And the best bit about visiting Chelsea Flower Show after such a long winter is getting your gardening mojo back. Remembering why you love gardening, be it pottering about on a Sunday afternoon; grabbing a precious 10 minutes watering the veg patch before work. Every gardener can take home a little bit of Chelsea this year; what would you take home?