Going Round in Circles

Designing your own garden is, I think, far trickier than designing someone else’s. One of the problems is that emotion gets in the way. I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be passion in design but far too often one is tempted to hang onto things that have no place in the new design, whether it is a plant or a pot – or in this example, far too many pots!Garden Makeover 3a copyright

The garden shown here was quite a good size but difficult for it was on a gentle slope and there was need for a central path to lead to sheds at the far, and lower, end. To avoid splitting the garden in half, large circular stepping stones had been randomly placed but the result was a confusing mish-mash of shapes and plants. The only place the eye focused on was the rotary washing line!Garden Makeover 1c copyright

You don’t need to be a great artist to design a garden. A simple method is to take photographs, turn them into black and white (for colour confuses the eye) and pencil sketch over them. Here, we were quite keen to improve on the circular theme.
The final result was a series of circles, each with a low retaining wall and a step down to allow for the change in level. Trellis was used to screen the sheds. Although the hard landscaping took up more of the garden than before, the remaining planting area was far more useful and could be crammed with plants. The little walls made perfect low seats.Garden Makeover 2c copyrightGarden Makeover 1b copyright

And what happened to all the pots? Most of these were discarded in favour of a large, custom-made, L-shaped timber box. This gave a better space for planting as well as making a feature in its own right. Water-retaining gel crystals were added to the planting soil reducing the need for regular watering.Garden Makeover 3d copyright

You can find more ideas on all aspects of easy, trouble-free design, plants and gardening techniques in my book, Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  To take a peek inside the covers click on the link here.

BOOK COVER

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Fetch me a Handkerchief…

When you come to think of it, gardening is a strange hobby.  What makes people want to spend hours of their time, let alone their hard-earned cash, toiling away in the hope that something might grow?   Why get wet or too cold or too hot and far too tired just to watch your favoured plant being ravaged by pests and diseases or, just when you think all is going swimmingly, to see it being struck down by an unforeseen frost?  On bad days it hardly seems worthwhile.

Of course, the answer is because gardeners are eternal optimists.  Just because something has failed this time means, surely, that it will be a great success the next. And, generally speaking, the good results far outnumber the bad.  What can give more joy than eating, say, a juicy, full-of-flavour pear that you have nurtured knowing that it is free from pollutants and raised by your own hand?  Or, plunging your snout into the centre of a rose bush knowing that it will come out, as the saying goes, smelling of roses?

If all of this sounds slightly odd to a non-gardener, then stranger still must be the thought that many professional gardeners never see the end results of their labour.  They do a task and move onto another garden, often never to return. As a member of this strange breed a question I often get asked is what motivates me.  The answer is always the same: it is the thought of success, of planting for the future and the sheer pleasure in working alongside nature.  And, of course, some gardens we return to again and again.

And so it is with my ‘oldest’ garden: one I have worked in for twenty years, first as Head Gardener and, after I moved miles away to the secret valley, on an occasional basis doing more specialist tasks.
One of the last jobs I carried out was to plant that most celebrated and notorious of ornamental trees Davidia invoulcrata, the Handkerchief Tree, to announce the arrival of the new millennium.  Celebrated because of its wonderful flowers resembling a pocket handkerchief; notorious because it can take twenty years before they appear.

 Davidia originates from China and although first discovered in the mid 1800’s it was not until 1904 that the first one was to be grown in England.  If given the right conditions they grow quickly and although they aren’t fussy about soil type they do like a certain degree of shelter – mine is planted on the edge of woodland which gives protection from strong westerly gales.  They do not respond well to pruning so it is important to allow it space to grow up to 60 feet in height and 20 feet across. They are attractive in a quiet sort of way even when young for, although they lose their leaves in winter, they are of a pleasing shape and shade of green during the summer months.

Every May, I have checked the tree to ensure that it is growing well and looking healthy and wondering if I would ever see it in flower – and this year I did.  Along its uppermost branches, fluttering in the breeze were fifteen flowers, one for each year of its planting.  I stood watching them for several minutes and, as many a gardener will understand, felt quite emotional that I had been instrumental in growing something that will become more spectacular with every year that passes.  Could it be that its English name was given not just because of the resemblance to a clothing accessory but because those early growers, seeing them for the first time, reached out for their own handkerchiefs?  It is special moments like these that keep gardeners, both amateur and professional, gardening.

The flowers of Davidia are, in reality, only the round reddish centre; the white parts are bracts, leaf like structures that are often brightly coloured or in the case of Davidia, white.

A mature Davidia seen at Hidcote Manor Gardens – it will be some years before the one I planted will look like this…

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A Garden Invitation

If you are disappointed or disillusioned with your garden – or just not too sure how to begin – then this may be the answer: come and join me at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival next month.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Hope to see you there!

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Tibet in the Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are full of surprises; they are around every corner. Often it is a beautiful, old stone building, a dramatic view or a colourful cloudscape.  Occasionally it is something else and at the tiny village of Todenham near Moreton-in-Marsh it is the sight of tall, Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze.

After exploring the Himalayas and Nepal in particular, Alain Rouveure, a Frenchman living in the Cotswolds, felt a real need to help the less privileged families he met there.  Am admiration of their craftsmanship and tribal art led to the creation of the Alain Rouveure Galleries some twenty-five years ago.  Today it is a thriving business whose profits are returned to the country which supplies the clothing, jewellery, gifts and rugs that make the galleries a treasure trove of colour, texture and scents.

More recently, he has set up the Alain Rouveure Nepal Relief Fund which is funding the building of schools as well as caring for the health of poor children and their families.  A relatively small amount of money goes a very long way: repainting a classroom £45, desks and benches for four students £55.  However, it isn’t just these practical issues that funding assists for, as Alain says, just knowing that there are people from far away taking an interest in their remote communities makes a huge difference not just to individuals but also to the whole village.

Surrounding the galleries are small but very lovely and tranquil gardens.  The calendula in the photographs were grown from seed given to Alain by Nepalese gardeners at Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, and it is interesting to see such a disparity of size and colour all of which help to create a splendid show.

On my visit, I spent a long time trying out the numerous Tibetan singing bowls deciding which sound I liked the best.  It was something I’d always wanted to own but I hadn’t realised before then just how much they vary both in their size and their ‘ring’.  In the end I realised that it was going to be a bowl choosing me rather than the other way around.  Traditionally, the bowls are used in meditation and prayer and the sound – and the vibration from them – is mesmeric. The YouTube clip is of Tibetan bowls being played alongside Native American flutes.  The method of generating the pulsating ‘singing’ is shown at about 10:30 into the video. The combination of sounds from two cultures is fascinating and memorable especially when wild birds start to sing in the background.



The visit ended with lunch at the Himalayan coffee house where a very good home grown salad – followed by a ‘to die for’ cake – was had at very modest cost.  Recently treatment rooms have been added and there are also fund raising concerts – the next to be held is Songs and Arias with the mezzo-soprano, Cerys Jones accompanied by harpist, Tanya Houghton on Saturday 14th September, 7.30pm.

For more information about the galleries have a look at their extensive website.

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The Russian Curse

Turn and run!  Nothing can stop them.  Around every river and canal their power is growing.
Stamp them out!  We must destroy them. They infiltrate each city with their thick dark warning odour*.

Plant hunters have over the centuries introduced many beautiful plants to our gardens but they have also brought in others that have, as they escaped from its confines, become troublesome weeds.  Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica, creates problems by damaging river banks and pushing up through concrete, even entering houses; Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, is pretty enough with their hooked pink and white flowers but smothers native plants.  Both are difficult and costly to eradicate.  But the one that can cause the most trouble – and is undoubtedly the most impressive – is Giant Hogweed.

Long ago in the Russian hills, a Victorian explorer found the regal hogweed by a marsh … he came home to London and made a present of the hogweed to the Royal Gardens at Kew*.

Giant Hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, was introduced to Britain from the Caucasus in  Victorian times and soon became a popular addition to parks and gardens for, although similar in appearance to our native Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, these were giants in every way.  Huge flower heads above equally large leaves reaching way into the sky – up to twenty feet or more in exceptional specimens – were something to marvel at. A hardy perennial, the plants shot up over the course of just one summer adding to its popularity, although it can be a few years before the plant flowers after which it dies.  With  up to 100,000 seeds from each plant, it soon multiplied and before long had found its way back to the marshy land adjacent to rivers and canals as in its homeland.

I wonder how long it took the Victorian gardeners to discover the problems associated with the plant for it not only spreads rapidly, it also is extremely toxic.  Covered in sharp bristles that scratch the skin it is the sap from the plant that can cause major injury.  Skin contact with the sap when exposed to sunlight results in severe dermatitis: itching and redness develop into blisters and dark wheals.  These can last for several years.  Contact with the eyes is even more dangerous for permanent blindness can follow.

So what do you do if you find Giant Hogweed in your garden apart from turn and run?  It can be treated with weed killer and the ideal time to do this is when the plants have a large leaf area but before they flower.  It is essential not to handle the plant at any time – even when it is dead – for every part of it including its roots will injure you.  If you are tempted to carry out control yourself (and it may be wiser to call in a specialist eradication company (please, not me!)) then you must wear a complete coverall and full face and eye protection.  You also need to remember that the clothing will also be contaminated and should be destroyed.

Fortunately, Giant Hogweed is rarely encountered in gardens.  You are more likely to find it growing in waste places in the wild and it may be wise to report its presence to your local environmental agency.  Attitudes toward it vary from country to country for this is not just a British pest – it is found in many other temperate regions of the world including the USA and Canada.

Perhaps at this point, I should remind you all that the majority of garden plants are harmless enough and that gardening and plants give a huge amount of pleasure.  Happy gardening!

* The Return of the Giant Hogweed: lyrics by Genesis, 1971

 

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An Exciting Evening

Fellow bloggers often comment about when they first began to write and  especially when or why they began to blog. When you come to think about it, blogging is rather an odd thing to do: you write your piece, perhaps add a few images, press the publish button and it’s out there for all the world to see.  Many of us assume that no-one will bother to read it and, after all, why should anybody be interested in our thoughts or projects?  But, again as many of us know, gradually people find us, follow us and friendships start to build.  The great majority of our followers we are never likely to meet in reality yet they share our tales and show real interest in what we are doing, whether it be family, travel, garden or whatever else we blog about.  Just occasionally, you come face to face with one and this happened last night.

Followers of this blog, whether here or on Facebook or my new website – or my Tweets –  can hardly have failed to notice that I have had my first book, “Why Can’t My Garden look Like That?” published recently (for I have been talking about virtually nothing else lately).  It has been an incredible journey with a huge and rapid learning curve; from commission to publication  it was completed in only thirteen months.  Fortunately, I had huge support and encouragement from my publishers, Constable & Robinson.  Fast forward another seven weeks to yesterday evening: the date of the official book launch.

I was delighted that our local bookshop, Jaffe & Neale, hosted it for Chipping Norton is very fortunate in having such a lovely, independent and award-winning bookshop.  It couldn’t have been a better choice of location for the town was glowing golden with the heat-wave sunshine emphasising the colour of the old, Cotswold stone buildings.

With Polly Jaffe of Jaffe & Neale, who hosted the evening, and Nikki Read and Giles Lewis of publishers, Constable & Robinson

I felt remarkably relaxed at the thought of making a speech to a large number of people.  In fact, my real concern was that no-one would turn up at all!  However, over one hundred came, filling the bookshop and spilling out onto the pavement giving the whole evening a real party atmosphere which, in turn, created more interest from passers-by.

A memorable evening was made all the more so as I began to realise just how far people had travelled to be with me.  Bette Baldwin of Friends of Hoar Oak Cottage had travelled up from Devon – I had met Bette only once before on Exmoor, thanks to the power of blogging.  Several others I had not met for a very long time; thirty years or more and, of course, there were others that I’d never met before at all.  The evening came to a close with a celebratory dinner organised by friends at a local restaurant.  An exciting evening and one never to be forgotten.

Yet more excitement today as I find that my book has been reviewed and described as “brilliant” by LandLove magazine.  They are also running a competition with ten copies of my book as prizes.  You can find out more about that by clicking the link here.

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First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

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Mothers Always Know Best (Sometimes)

From early childhood my parents taught my sister and I the skills to be self-sufficent. From my father we were both taught how to grow and harvest things from the garden which ultimately led to me earning my living from gardening. My sister became a skilled plantswoman and, although she has never earnt money from it, now opens her garden to the public each year raising many hundreds of pounds for charity.

My mother was much more interested in being indoors running the home. She was always at her happiest when unexpected visitors arrived and were persuaded to stay for dinner. Somehow, from the depths of her larder (which was always bulging) she would rustle up enough food to feed the proverbial army. Just before she died two years ago, I asked her why she had been so ‘progressive’ teaching me, a boy in the 1950’s, to sew buttons and name tapes, amongst other things, on clothing. She looked somewhat surprised and puzzled at the question and, to my disillusionment, told me it was because she had hated doing them herself. Mothers!

That was not the case when it came to cooking and the three of us loved to bake and baste together so, that by the time I reached my teens, I was able to cook a complete meal from start to finish. At one of my mother’s dinner parties I remembered an amazing stack of ultra thin shortbreads, with layers of clotted cream and rasberries between each one. A final decoration of raspberries and icing sugar on top left an unshakeable image of culinary delight in my mind and one that I had intended to recreate for years.

More disappointment when Mother told me that I’d imagined it, that she’d never made anything like it and it would be impossible to create wafer like, plate sized shortbreads – if only because it would be impossible to lift or cut them without them breaking. I was determined to prove her wrong and, every so often, she would give me that look that mothers do when I told her of my latest failed attempt.

The photographs illustrate the procedure for my ‘wafer stack’


Finally, yesterday, I achieved success, albeit they were much smaller than planned. Now they are individual sized portions but perhaps better for that.

Here is the recipe, which couldn’t be simpler:

4oz butter

2oz icing sugar

6 oz plain flour

pinch of salt

*Put all ingredients into a food processor and whizz until the mix forms a soft ball

*If you just want to make ‘ordinary’ shortbread then press into a flat tin or on a baking sheet with the back of a fork

*Bake for 15 minutes at 180C until firm and only just beginning to colour

*Remove from oven and immediately cut into pieces but don’t remove from baking sheet until completely cool

If you want to try my stack the process is a bit different and a little more time consuming:

*Make as before but instead of pressing down the mixture, roll out as thinly as possible. This won’t be thin enough!

*Cut out rounds – I used a jam jar as I found that if the circles were anything larger they were impossible to lift without them breaking up (Mother did know best!)

*Place on a baking sheet and don’t worry if the rounds are now an odd shape. Flatten with fingers into a round shape making as thin as possible I made 24 altogether from the quantities of ingredients above

*Bake for 5 minutes only at 180C, leave to cool on sheet before lifting

For the filling, use any fruit you fancy. Here, I have used blueberries and strawberries.
Cut up into pieces and mix with a thick cream – I used sour cream (smetena). Decorate with a ‘clean’ piece of fruit

Good luck and let me know if you manage to make them plate size. Somehow, I feel that you won’t and in this case, Mother does know best! I like to think she has been watching my final attempt with an amused smile and rather cross that she is unable to try the end result…..

PS I promise that the next post will be the latest news on the puppies!

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Blogging One Year On….

Greetings from the secret valley! Today is a special day for it is exactly one year since my very first post.
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the secret valley
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When I began blogging, it occurred to me that, as what I was writing would be in the ‘public domain’, that someone might read it. However, deep down, I didn’t think that anyone would. It is a constant surprise that it is read and that the number of viewings is in the thousands rather than just half a dozen or so. Thank you so much.
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Like many of you, I write for my own pleasure but, knowing that the words are read, I do make some effort to write coherently and, hopefully, interestingly – not always, I fear, with success. The secret valley is always a source of inspiration and, sitting at my computer, I look out across the fields to the trees and the little, winding river. The photo below is what I see every day and never forget just how lucky I am.
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view of the secret valley from my desk
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And so, one year on, you have followed me through the seasons:
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in the cold

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and as the weather warms
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You have followed me on my travels:
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Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland

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Lee Bay, Exmoor

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You have met my family:

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The old nags

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and the very special She-dog

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And you have witnessed my gardening:

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my successes….
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….and my failures
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But best of all, through blogging, I have met interesting people from all over the world, from all walks of life and I am all the richer for it.
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and sometimes I still can’t get the spacing right between paragraphs – is it me or is it Blogger?!

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Up, up and away

It is time to take you on an aerial tour of the Cotswold countryside and gardens and how better than by hot air balloon? This flight was my birthday present last spring, when the countryside was looking at its lushest best – the yellow fields of Rape contrasting vividly with the bright greens.

The layout of this garden near the village of Oddington is beautifully illustrated from the air – I wonder if the owners were ever so fortunate to see it from above?

The walled, organic gardens at Daylesford, too, are shown to be quite an unusual shape: the intricate design of the parterre giving way to a less formal area uses this to its advantage – a study in good design. Saxon ridge and furrow field systems are also shown in sharp relief. There are a lot of these around the Cotswolds and they can originate from as far back as a thousand years although many were worked up until a couple of hundred years ago. Now preserved and retained as pasture, often the drier, warmer ridges have quite different wild flowers growing compared with the damper furrows.

We ‘touched down’ in a field not far from the small town of Stow-on-the-Wold, shown in the photo below. Stow is famed for its twice annual Gypsy Horse Fair where travellers gather from all over the UK to buy and sell ponies and catch up with news. It is also well known for its exposed climate as in the local saying “Stow-on-the-Wold where the wind blows cold”.

The balloon’s shadow chasing us is a favourite photo as also is this one of the burners in full flame!

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