Sunday, 30 August 2009

Rurban life

I'm staying in my garden this weekend and that's just fine. In fact it's the perfect thing to do on a bank holiday weekend when everyone else is either doing things out of town or at the Carnival. Last week though, I had an attack of urbanitis and had to escape for a dose of Country.

Joyfully, I didn't have to go too far - a long drive and traffic jams are guaranteed to aggravate the symptoms. But a walk along the river at Richmond is surprisingly almost rural and helps start the cure. Once past the boating houses, the meadows at Petersham even host cows (nice to look at from afar, but assiduously avoided due to their current killer status); and the path along the Thames is fringed with wild plantlife and muddy enough to seduce you into feeling that you really are quite far away from the city; as long as you can ignore the underbellies of 747s flying into Heathrow. At only 20 minutes from home, it's definitely a no.1 Rurban experience.

Still not cured, though, I headed further afield. Officially in the country, but only a short Sunday drive into deepest, darkest Surrey, lies the wonderfully-named village of Friday Street. Thankfully it is very poorly signposted, so perhaps will remain undiscovered by townie daytrippers like me Dan, Nick and Ian. With mossy, gnarled woods to walk through, a hidden treasure of a pub, a sumptuous pond and an honesty table of plants for 50p a pot (I bought an unnamed tiny succulent), it felt like we'd taken an enchanted turn off the M25 and reached Dorset in less than an hour.

But this was just an interlude before our intended destination, the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden/. We enjoyed lunch at the Stefan Langton Inn so much (it was pudding heaven) that we left ourselves barely an hour before Hannah rang her closing bell, but it was just enough for a taster tour.

I first visited 10 years ago and loved it as much this time, although being a woodland garden, spring is probably a better time to visit. But the sculptures do sit in the landscape so well, whatever the season. There's a mix of the fun, the cliched and the beautifully crafted, and we entertained ourselves with the reflective pieces; but my favourite was the fence-sculpture made of reclaimed dead branches, and I wish I had £6k spare and a big garden to display it in... Modern art aside, the ducks in the pond were the stars of the show.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Going to seed

City seeds should be standard issue. If we all carried around a handful in our pockets and scattered them as we walked, colour would slowly colonise the capital. Seeds I'm saving this year: nasturtium, foxglove, poppy, hollyhock. These are earmarked to bring some colour to the little graveyard at the end of my road next summer.
Seeds I don't need to save: red valerian - these morph quickly into fluffy fly-away things and there are new shoots sprouting from every crack in the paving; aquilegia too are appearing everywhere so I will transplant the seedlings next spring.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Me and the beanstalk

It's not hard to imagine how the story started. Beans are really quite magical. Fast to germinate, natural climbers and prolific too. It just takes a small leap of a childlike imagination to think that your climbing french beans could go on upwards forever if you didn't pinch out the tops.

And when the flowers actually turn into beans, it is nothing short of miraculous, never mind finding a giant. I swear that the slithers of pods I checked and left behind yesterday because they were too small to pick have swollen overnight into fully fledged green beans that could quite proudly hold their own in an EU-regulated supermarket veg line-up. Some people think homegrown equals misshapen but tasty - but my French beans are quite gorgeous.

Last night I cooked the ones that were just the right size according to a newly acquired (although I probably knew it all along) principle: anything grown above the ground should be cooked in cold water brought to the boil; and anything grown below the ground should be dropped into boiling water. This apparently preserves the flavour. Well, it wasn't a controlled, scientific test, but my beans really did taste a whole lot better than those packets of slimline, ready topped and tailed green tubes that get flown in from Kenya.

Sunday, 23 August 2009


This week's colours in the garden are: nasturtium red, orange crocosmia, pale pink succisa, ruby valerian, blue ceratostigma and yellow courgette.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Go east

Columbia Road is a small kernel of London greenery. We may be feted for our parks, gardens and tree-lined avenues, but here is a nugget of lush, growing urban outdoor life, flourishing in a very ungreen, densely populated part of town. It's as as much about the people as the plants; as every city space should be.

From the overstuffed balcony of foliage that graces the tenement flats at one end, to the other where this small street is crammed with market stalls selling plants that most regular garden centres wouldn't touch with a long-handled rake, it's a feast for urban gardeners.

I went in search of a deckchair and Sunday morning atmosphere, both of which are unavailable at my local diy barn. And, a once regular market-goer, I was also harbouring some wistful thoughts of Sunday morning's past. I promised myself I wouldn't buy any plants (is there ever such a thing as no more room in your garden?). So I came away with an old lampshade, a vintage ordance survey map of Land's End, an off-beat-designer blouse and a selection of culinary herbs. And an armful of summer blooms.

I could point out that things ain't what they used to be, and rail against the tide of gentrification that is engulfing our quirky urban corners. I could mention that my favourite coffee shop was still there (along with at least a dozen new ones), but its staff were grumpier than I rembember; that there seems to have been a proliferation of gift shops specialising in mugs (how many mugs do people need - really?); and how my ideal deckchair carried an £89 price tag.

But all of that distracts me from the Flower Market, which is what Columbia Road has staked its reputation on. Shoreditch overflow apart, those stalls are still stuffed with an abundance of plants and people walk away from Columbia road with as much of these floral wares as they can carry, trailing a thread of greenery out into the city. All the evidence suggests that even in these financially challenged times, the market is still doing a roaring trade.

Not for Columbia Road the fate of Covent Garden, overrun by shopping mall shops without even a hint of its former life as a flower market. Where else can you can buy a half dozen enormous sunflowers for a fiver? Somehow on a grey August Sunday morning, that seems like a good old-fashioned bargain.