Friday, 31 December 2010

The scent of Christmas present

There's a lot of fuss about mistletoe, ivy, holly berries and pine trees at this time of year. Of course there are lots of other things like Christmas box and Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' that don't get as much press as they should. But for all the plants we bring indoors, I want to shout about the more exotic Narcissus 'Paper white' and the divine amaryllis in its many hues. It's simply a gorgeous thing to invite the first taste of spring inside in deepest midwinter.  
Last year, my early narcissus bulbs were a bit of a flop. The understairs cupboard simply wasn't cold enough for the first phase of forcing. So this year, sometime in November, in lieu of a shed or greenhouse, I put the pots in a galavanised steel bin that doubles as outside storage by the back door. It was just before the first snowfall, so they had a seriously dark, chilling start. I nearly forgot about them altogether, but when I was looking for something a few weeks back, I discovered my two pots of bulbs and they have been sitting on the kitchen windowsill since then.
The stint in the bin seemed to do the trick. I came home from Christmas lunch at the inlaws to find the first flower open. Now, a week later, they have all emerged, sweet and white and, as 2011 approaches, the house is filled with a lovely mixture of the scent of Christmas tree and narcissus: winter meets spring.
And although I confess that I bought cut stems of amaryllis, their intense colour has been better than any Christmas bauble. I feel like I've got the hang of this forcing now so I'll be growing them next time for sure - another thing to add to that list of resolutions. Happy new year!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Snow and hangover cures

The snow has arrived - again. Just a light dusting in West London, which has cheered things up immensely. Everything looked pinched and cold in the frosty greyness of the morning. Now the garden looks snug and cosy under the snow and the skies have gone blue and bright. It really is alpine fresh. And I'm enjoying the incongruity of the test match coverage burbling away in the background on the radio.
There have been a few days this week when the ground softened enough to get a few more broad beans in, dig up some leeks and prepare the ground for some promised garlic - exceedingly late, I know. The clayey builders-rubble soil at the allotment was even quite good to dig, the big clods broken up by the frost and easier to turn over.
I was particularly glad about this as I was nursing a hangover of the variety that can only be induced by a fatal combination of a work Christmas party, involving chinese food and karaoke (the less said the better). I don't think it's been very well documented, but aside from coffee, chocolate and a fry up, digging has to be the finest remedy for a hangover.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Frozen leeks and the church of permaculture

These leeks at Regents Park Allotment were definitely frozen this morning. It feels like we have fast forwarded to February. Only a week ago I was at Wisley, marvelling at how mild the weather was. But after that spell of warmish autumn days that lulled a few bulbs into poking some leaves above the soil and made the autumn leaves sing against blue skies, we are now in deepest winter chill, even in central London.
I went to frosty Regents Park this moring for an introduction to permaculture course organised by Sustain. As a complete novice, I learned that there is more to it than the much talked about forest gardening. Trainer Stefan told us that it is first and foremost a 'set of thinking tools'  - more about how you live your life than what you grow in your garden. That's all very well, but I am suspicious of any set of principles that 'must be adhered to' - something to do with a Catholic upbringing I suspect. But as a method of getting the most out of a small growing space, I will overlook the quasi-religious rulebook and I will read more.
These hard frosts are very unusual for central London, especially in November and I fear for my echium which was very belatedly wrapped in fleece. Luckily my last 95 bulbs have been planted, two rows of Feltham First peas have gone in at the allotment and hopefully the ground will unfreeze in time to plant some garlic.
The days are excruciatingly short and cold and it really is time to retreat indoors - fires and cakes and some time to pore over seed catalogues and catch up on all those gardening books. And then, surely it will be nearly spring again?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Shooting sprouts and kale

There's only one thing to do on the allotment at this time of year. Dig. Very vigorous digging, just to keep warm. But this week the digging was interrupted by photographer Paul Debois. Paul has decided to shoot all the women allotmenteers he has worked with as a follow on to his gorgeous series of gardeners hand portraits (worth looking to see if you can guess which hands belong to which celebrity gardener, it's quite fascinating). But for this project, he is photographing me, Tamsin and Kate (from Gardeners' World magazine) on the work allotment. How flattering and potentially glamorous!
But I don't recommend a photoshoot on an allotment in November. It's been hard to get the right day, weather and light, and when these did converge, it was, naturally, freezing cold. So we waited for a red bus to shoot past on the flyover behind to set the Londonscene and tried to smile in the wind. Chapped lips and flyaway hair aside, the end result looks great - a sort of more down-to-earth Charlie's Angels, if you wanted to be complimentary - and, consummate modelling professionals that we clearly are, you can't really tell that we were frozen to the bone. I will post a link to the photo if and when Paul adds it to his website.
Meanwhile I have to report that the Tuscan Kale is looking truly magnificent, but the sprouts have a long way to go before they reach any sort of respectable size.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Horror stories

As a passing tribute to Halloween and the Mexican day of the dead, I thought I'd dig up some advice from the past. From a time when wood veneer record players graced ladderack shelves, gold taps were de rigeur for avocado bathroom suites and full page technicolor adverts for Rothmans Select cigarettes sat opposite the gardening Q&A.
I found this near-pristine copy of 1972 House & Garden magazine at a car boot sale a while back. So, it being October, I thought I'd see how much of the gardening was still relevant. The seasonal advice is broadly unchanged - although heavily biased towards lawn maintenance and dealing with leftover summer bedding (no sign of making leaf mould or growing veg). The design tip was very retro - "conifers, always sensational, are now vrey much coming into their own", and Adrian Bloom's just published 'Conifers For Your Garden ' book comes highly recommended.
But my favourite is the advice dispensed to a resident of NW3, who is looking for a tree to plant in their Hampstead garden to screen them from the neighbours. The choice? Yes, of course it had to be the dreaded leylandii, that did for hedging what shag pile carpets did for floorboards. "It puts on three feet or so a year... the unwanted view would not take long to disappear."  In fact, he goes on to say, plant not one, but two! I wonder if they are still there and how tall they are now.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Frost and summer thoughts

Another frost, followed by wet and windy days this week. Summer - both the one just gone and the next one I'm already looking forward to - feels a long way away. I'm already thinking nostalgically of our late September holiday in Cornwall. I didn't blog about it at the time because it was a blissful week free from the internet and even a mobile signal. 
Although Cornwall is a massive gardening destination, this time I only visited two of the many gorgeous gardens in the county. Much of our time was spent walking the clifftop paths of the northern coast, marvelling at the views and the golden beaches that match anything I've seen in Australia; and admiring the fact that anything at all can grow there, in rocky soil and perpetually buffeted by Atlantic winds. And yet, tough plants thrive - like the sea thrift pictured above, and miles of gorse and heathers that flank the coastal path network with an impenetrable blanket of vegetation. It was right-plant-right-place in all its natural glory.
It also explains why most of the great Cornish gardens are located on the more benign south coast, where it's so lush that it's hard to imagine a plant in the wrong place. I'm sorry that I didn't get to Tremenheere, as scooped by the Galloping Gardener, but that will be top of the list for next time. I stuck to the big cliched ones: Heligan and The Eden project. Partly out of duty and partly due to time available - and I felt like I couldn't miss them out again.
Heligan did not disappoint (even husband, whose garden visits I have to ration in order not to peak his enthusiasm, liked this one). The story of Tim Smit's restoration is an inspiring one and the results are quite enchanting, even on the drizzliest of days (hence v. disappointing photos, none here). Somehow it made the tree fern gulleys more atmospheric. But the vegetable and the cut flower gardens were the parts I would like to take home with me. Or rather, be able to live in one of the gardener's cottages surrounded by it all.

The Eden Project is another story. Again, a fantastic achievement by Mr Smit and a wonderful thing that people come to see plants and maybe take something back home from their holidays other than buckets and spades. But as a plant geek, I missed the labelling that most botanic gardens are so fanatical about and I felt that the slick organisation, from parking, to pathways and signposting was a bit School of Ikea - not really encouraging visitors to explore and ramble and form their own opinions. I really like some of the exterior landscaping, particularly the meadows which featured the lonely coneflower above, and the mixed borders of shrubs and perennials outside those biomes. And as for them domes, apart from my camera being unable to cope with the steamy humidity inside them, they did vaguely impress me. But give me Kew's Palm House any day.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Colour and mulch

It's definitely autumn. My garden isn't great for autumn colour but this bunch I put together represents the final floral fourish and it kind of heartened me that even at the end October there are still a few reasons to be cheerful.  Namely, in my tiny plot at least, japanese anemones, sedums, clematis viticella and monkshood, plus the still-blooming summer throwbacks, sunflowers, lavender and nasturtiums. Last year, the October flower selection looked like this. The monkshood is in fact so divinely purple, it deserves a picture all of its own. Such an intense colour at this time of year.
And of course there are still bulbs to plant. Our local community bulb planting event in the burial ground today was a little thin on the ground with volunteers, but we still got in upwards of about 150 daffodils and tulips. And newcomers came with bulbs they want to watch from the local pub - which sums up urban community gardening quite neatly.
But still, reverting to my half-empty setting, I can't help but indulge in a little mournfulness about taking down the bean canes and cutting back spent plants and shrubs. Thank god for mulch, kind of makes things look all tucked up and cosy for the winter.

Sunday, 10 October 2010


Gnarled, beaten oak trees, herds of deer, beautiful sun-bleached grassy plains, clear-running streams. No clouds today, and the sun, clean, sharp and October-low on the horizon. I don't know if it was the lucky combination of calendar numbers everyone was talking about, but it did feel like the gods were having a good day; a beautiful afternoon in Richmond Park.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Negligees, blousy blooms and leeks

It seems only moments ago that I was swooning at snowdrops and buying summer flowering bulbs at the first show of the year back in February. But now I really have to come to terms with the fact that it's the end of the season and time for the RHS Autumn Harvest Show in Pimlico. I took advantage of a sneak preview of the show this morning, before the crowds arrived.
At this time of year, the flowers are bold, dramatic and voluptuous, like a bouffant, buxom, chiffon-negligeed seventies starlet. The last big blooms of the year like to go out in style. The first thing to stop me in my tracks was this mauve colchicum with petals like tissue paper. Then the chrysanthemums made me smile - they really need dusting down and a bit of an image makeover. With our love of all things vintage, they must be due for a high fashion revival that goes beyond wallpapers and curtain fabrics. This pompom yellow Chrysanth 'Misty Cream' is fabulously retro.
There was a lot of pink, courtesy of gladioli and of course, nerines. Gorgeous flowers that bring a little psychedelic passion to these dank, darkening days. I would have bought an armful had I not been dashing across town - next year, I vow to plant many bulbs. I'm picturing the nerine-filled tub that Edith Hope has so eloquently described in her latest post.
Blousy colour aside, the perfect textures and geometric rosettes of succulents was equally seductive and I was smitten by the giant Aloe polyphylla, courtesy of  Trewidden Nursery.
Last but not least, it being a harvest festival there were plenty of apples and other fruit and vegetables. But I say God bless the giant leeks. 

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Chutney and cake

Sometime back I put out a call on this blog for courgette recipes. Now I can report that the last of the courgettes have been turned into a fantastic cake by me (I used this great Nigel Slater recipe), and into chutney by my husband.
The cake, as you can see, was not a pretty one, but it was quite delicious; although it doesn't do a lot to enhance the reputation of courgettes, as not even the keenest courgette-hater would be able to detect the presence of green vegetables in amongst all the lovely nuts and raisins.
The chutney is a different matter altogether. In the same way my husband is not the biggest fan of courgettes, I'm not a fan of chutneys (except mango, with a good curry). I admit this could be a long held prejudice that has its roots in cheese and branston pickle school sandwiches which I liked even less than school rice pudding. However, I have been converted to a good rice pud in the last year, so perhaps this homegrown, lovingly crafted, home-made chutney will have the same effect. The chutney is maturing currently, so I will keep you posted on that one.
Meanwhile the last bean is hanging on to save for next year's seed; the last three green tomatoes are ripening on the windowsill; chillis and peppers have been picked, the aubergines have long since gone into ratatouilles, the basil into pesto. I can't believe it's all over for another year.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Parks, deck chairs, pavilions and the prince

You can find many things in London Parks. Some things are quite unexepected: a group of Scottish country dancers at a bandstand in Kensington Gardens, kilts and all, a couple of Saturdays ago. And this weekend I heard the Pope was in Hyde Park...
Some things are expected: deck chairs. If you were inclined to spend a lot of time watching out for random park eccentricities, you can buy a Deck Chair season ticket; £40 if you you're a student, oap, or a family; £100 if you are none of the above. Otherwise normal charges apply: £1.50 for up to an hour, £4 for up to 3 hours and £7 for the day. You'd only have to spend two weeks between March and October sitting on your backside in Green Park every day to make a season ticket worthwhile. I may invest in one next year.
Alternatively you could go and sit for free in the gorgeous Red Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery - well, you are asked to make a donation of £1.50, but that covers the exhibition too (Wofgang Tillmans just ended - some beautiful close-up plant photography amongst other things). The pavilion is there until 17 October and is really worth a visit on a sunny afternoon when the red translucent structure glows in the light. There's some great red planting too - chards and basils with cannas and crocosmias. It's very hot.
Right next door to the Green Park deck chairs, HRH Prince of Wales opened up Clarence House and its neighbouring palaces for a week or so for the so-called Garden Party to Make a Difference. While it was a good excuse to have a peek inside this otherwise closed garden - quite nice, formal borders, as you would expect, but not exceptionally inspiring, all the various eco themed displays (and some atrocious dancing) were a distraction. They didn't make me want to go home and change all my non-renewable lightbulbs and insulate my loft with sheep's wool and the whole thing seemed to be sponsored by big corporate retailers known by their initials (M&S and B&Q) trying to PR their carbon footprints.  The garden part had been curated by El Titchmarsh, and there were some inspiring displays of growing veg in small spaces (see above) - including a recreation of the St Quentin's Avenue gardens I visited earlier this summer, the Skip Garden at King's Cross, which is on my list to vist, and some quite attractive recycled overwintering homes for insects. Overall, I was not in a very receptive mood the day I went, but even so, I'm fairly convinced it's not going to become an annual event.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A bowl of pears and a punnet of blueberries

Abundance is not a word that I often associate with what I grow in my 15x35ft garden. I squeeze in what I can and I kind of like our micro-harvests. But this year, I am proud to announce the arrival of a bowlful of pears.
There have been three barren years leading up to this momentous event - one fruit the first year, then a few promising small fruits in the second year were abducted by the neighbourhood squirrel. So I am quite surprised that this year they have made it through a season and look and taste like real pears. And there has been such a good turnout of fruit that I have quite profligately left two to rot - I missed their falling, so the wasps had already started to attack them. The question is what to do with the rest of them? 22 in total, to be precise - which I think qualifies as a bumper crop.
They need to ripen a little off the tree, and will store for a month or so in a cool dark place, but I can't get the image of a pear tarte tatin out of my mind. Pears poached in red wine are also a favourite pudding. But I'd like to try preserving some - I remember my grandmother preserving peaches in Italy and I'm sure the same alcoholic method can be applied to pears. I found some good, if slightly cursory recipes here, but I'd love any tried-and-tested suggestions.
The almost-a-punnet's worth of blueberries is a much easier proposition - blueberry pancakes. No contest.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Punch and Judy, morris dancers and pigs

A while back I blogged about pigs in Holland Park. This week I found pigs, sheep, echiums, the Women's Institute, Morris Dancers, and a Punch and Judy stall right in the heart of the theatre district in the West End. Plus cheeses and a grumpy shetland pony. It was the 2nd annual  Phoenix Garden Agricultural Show.
In all the years I worked in the West End, I never knew the Phoenix Garden existed. That was back in the dark late 1980s, when it was just emerging from life as a car park and druggie hang out, and I was more interested in pubs and clubs in the area. Now, just behind Shaftesbury Avenue, in the shadow of the brutal Centrepoint tower and the charming spire of St Giles Church, there is a gorgeous garden.  All planted in raised beds made of recycled concrete or on a very thin layer of rubble. A fruiting walnut tree, rowans, self-seeded echiums, Clematis 'Summer Snow' a fast growing, drought tolerant climber that flowers for 4 months of the year, salvia microphylla, and managed brambles. It was a masterclass in hardy, urban planting and is a big hit with local wildlife. But there was a fabulous banana plant too.
What started out as a community project in 1984, set up by local residents now gets enough funding to employ gardener, Chris Raeburn 20 hours a week. A fantastically generous source of knowledge, Chris blogs here.
I loved these chickenwire chickens he made, stuffed with plane tree leaves. They take a long time to rot down and meanwhile offer a winter home to ladybirds and lacewings. Chris tops up the leaves in the autumn and then uses the leafmould when its ready.
While I was garnering inspiration and knowledge to bring back to our own local neglected green space, husband was busy investigating the tea stand, farmyard life and the punch and judy: adults and children alike were riveted by the sight of cute, if disinterested farm animals, and the spectacle of violent traditional puppetry in such a rare setting.


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Shopping, tea and venice

I've visited a couple of  inner-London garden centres on this blog, each very different. If you're in the Portobello/ Westbourne Grove area, looking for a bit of respite from shopping and Notting Hillites with loud, intrusive voices, I can recommend taking a brisk 15 minute walk north-eastwards and heading under the Westway to Little Venice. (You could of course pick up one of the Barclays Bikes - but they weren't operating for casual use the day I went). Whichever means of transport you choose, when you get there, you can escape the crowds of tourists, sample a bit of waterside London (more Amsterdam, I always think than Venice), and stop for tea and cake at Clifton Nurseries.
It's easy to miss, especially at the moment with the entrance disguised by some of London's finest scaffolding. But dart down the alleyway behind two rows of houses and you'll find a gorgeous plant paradise. Stuffed with beautiful specimens (I had to tear myself away from an Angelica gigas, which the assistant told me does better in damp soil - it will never grow in my garden), and seductive garden accessories. It really doesn't feel like a garden centre and you can get quite lost in the aisles. I loved this large resin pot, embedded with small slices of pruned wood - what a great way to use up your trimmings.

I also liked the fact that the plants are labelled when British grown (it's good to see more garden centres doing this); and there are sections for plants to suit different areas of the garden. These are clearly signposted with advice and tips from local gardeners who open for the NGS - so you can visit a garden, see a plant you like, then pop round the corner to Clifton's to buy it. Very canny. But it is a great place for inspiration for the urban gardener, although a bit of a tease if you're on a budget - their price for a 20cm box ball is £24.95 (almost a tenner more than in less salubrious Hammersmith). And the lemon drizzle cake was not the best, but in such lovely surroundings, it was forgiveable.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Big borders and beetroot cake

I visited two gardens this weekend. They couldn't have been more different in style, size and location. The first was Nymans, in Sussex. I have been driving up and down the A23 for years now, seeing the sign and thinking: next time I'll go and visit. Finally, this weekend was that next time. It's a National Trust classic: an Important Garden. The wealthy Messel family collected plants through the late19th century, created a garden over the next 100 years and had several plants named after them, before bequeathing everything to the NT in the 1950s after a dramatic fire burned down the house (cue Daphne du Maurier plot). It ticks lots of boxes in terms of horticulture, garden design and history: sumptuous seasonal borders, gracious lawns, views, yards of clipped hedging and numerous mature trees and walkways through different styles of planting - woodland, bamboo, heather. The late summer borders were a blast of colour, dazzling, even on a grey, drizzly day and impressive not least because they are only watered every 10-20 days...

On Sunday, I cycled to Richmond on my fabulous new bicycle, to the Old Palace Lane Allotments NGS Open Day. Snaking alongside the railway, the plots broke every health and safety regulation I'm sure, and crammed a huge amount of fruit and veg and people in. There was a lot of bindweed too. But apple and damson trees dripped with fruit, pumpkins nestled in corners and there was a lot of love and pride, even if it wasn't perfectly tended. There were some fine cakes on offer too - the beetroot and chocolate brownies were delicious; and I took home an alchemilla mollis and a pot of tarragon for 50p apiece. It was very far removed from the grandeur of Nymans. I know which one I felt more at home in. 

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Home grown dinners

This is my haul from the allotment this week. I don't expect you to be impressed (but please note the size of the onion, which I am quite proud of). We share what we grow at work between at least 6 or 7 of us, and if you add one bulb of garlic, some tomatoes, french beans, rocket, one carrot and the smallest spuds you have ever seen, from the garden at home, I have managed to accumulate enough ingredients for two almost-homegrown meals.
I did allow myself a couple of extras - the baked courgette stuffing, came with breadcrumbs, feta cheese and pine nuts, the stewed rhubarb for pudding definitely needed some sugar plus a dollop of yoghurt, and I supplemented the sort-of-niceoiseian salad with roasted artichoke hearts and mozzarella. I did take photos of the end result, but presentation has never been my strong point, and both dishes tasted much better than they looked. However, there were no other diners, as husband is still in far flung climates surviving on hotel room service meals, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Friday, 6 August 2010

101 ways to cook courgettes

I don't think I'm in for a tomato glut, judging by the rather demure way my Gardeners' Delights are ripening one at a time. But I think that this year, I could be in the running for domestic level EU courgette mountain status. I have five plants that have so far produced approaching 30 beautiful green specimens - of varying dimensions. Five plants is definitely too many for a household of two and a dog. And now, husband is on another work excursion to far flung climes, a job I'm sure he didn't hesitate to accept when I threatened him with more courgette treats. ("Can we grow something else next year?" he pleaded.)
So far, I have done griddled, raw and fried. This blogger's cheesecake recipe is also a winner and my latest favourite is fritters - grated, mixed with eggs, parmesan, nutmeg and seasoning and shallow fried. V. nice with sweet chilli sauce. Of course a ratatouille is imminent- my aubergines are coming on a treat.
But I am wondering how many ways can you cook a courgette?  I feel duty bound to investigate this. Any suggestions?

Friday, 23 July 2010

City fruit and veg

After a wander round Borough Market, I can highly recommend popping into the Union Street Urban Orchard which is empty of tourists and full of fruit trees, flowers and birds.
Borough Market is great for sampling food treats - cheeses, salamis, sauces and marvelling at beautiful, pile-em-high vegetable displays. But the price tags are exorbitant: can you imagine paying £2 for a single tomato? Well, I did, (surely the world's most expensive?) - my excuse is that I was seduced by childhood memories of Italian markets and misshapen ripe pommodori that tasted of sunshine. This one, sadly didn't live up to my expectations. But it did make me want to rush out and order my seeds for next year.
So it was good to see some real food growing in the Orchard, a temporary community garden nestling alongside some railway arches. The high walls make a perfect sheltered garden and it's a welcome pocket of greenery in a very built up area. In assorted containers - pallets, hessian sacks, stacks of truck tyres - there are peaches ripening, apples, a cider shed awaiting the harvest, courgettes flourishing and summer bright geraniums, and pansies recycled from the Pansy Project garden at Hampton Court.  It's a great use of an otherwise empty site, built as part of the London Festival of Architecture just for this summer. And after September, all the plants are going to be redistributed around community gardens and plots in the area, by the wonderfully named Wayward Plants project.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Garlic and onions

At the work allotment today I got chatting to one of the gardeners who maintains the workscape. It was just before they were rudely moved on by some officious jobsworth in the overlooking building, for eating their packed lunches in an inappropriate location - why they couldn't picnic by the allotment I have no idea.
Dan, a young guy from Grenada with the gentlest of Caribbean accents, is still amazed at city living and how we buy all our food. He told me about his home, where his mother grows everything they eat and tends the goats and all the kids have chores to do, or there's no dinner. They don't have many material posessions, but when all the work is done, there's still time to sit and just relax and chat. He said that growing food makes you feel responsible because you've taken care of it right from the start.
Dan spoke some very wise words. There is nothing quite like that sense of pride and amazement at harvesting your own food. I never get tired of it: one garlic clove turning into a whole new bulb; those first potatoes of the season discovered in a spadeful of earth.
Today I took home the first garlic of the season - and also some garlic flower buds. I love these elegant-stemmed emergent flowers, with the pointiest of tips. Last year, I let them bloom, but this reduces the size and punch of the bulb of course. So this year, I reluctantly gave them the snip. But I'm told they are delicious to eat, so they will find their way into a stir fry this week or maybe a pesto sauce, like this recipe I found.
And I am in complete, blissful wonderment at how a tiny black seed turns into an onion or a leek. It's my first year of growing them from seed and I am amazed that onion-shaped bulbous growths are starting to appear. I am thrilled and excited and will never use sets again - that's cheating.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Hampton finds itself

It's another big flower show week for London, with Hampton Court bringing together lots of out of town nurseries, designers and plenty of other gardening treats. Hampton has been suffering in recent years from the poor relation syndrome. Inevitably compared to Chelsea - and never in the same league - it has been struggling to find its own identity. Once known for its water gardens and the big Daily Mail film set of a pavilion, after these had gone, the show flirted with the family tag, food growing, brought in conceptual gardens and floating Thai markets and really seemed to have lost its way. Even the weather has been more than a little unkind: torrential rain, extreme mud and high winds have been typical of Hampton week the last few years.
But today, as the show celebrates its 21st year, it feels like it really has come of age and this show lives up to the spectacular backdrop of Henry VIII's palace. It was gloriously sunny too and soon made me forget that it had taken me the best part of 2 hours to travel  around 10 miles (getting there on public transport is challenging).
The conceptual gardens are still very much part of the show, as is the food growing and family stuff, but it seems to have found the right level. Food is at the heart of the show - literally, with the Home Grown exhibit  of lots of conventional and exotic veg and some rather gorgeous chickens;  and it leads you neatly into the Growing tastes marquee (love those elephant garlic heads).

And vegetables are liberally sprinkled through many of the small and full-size gardens. For families, there's the scarecrow comeptition and lots of involvement with brownies and girl guides planting up strange objects including filing cabinets and cookers and even a Lego garden (the plants are real...).
The conceptual gardens are bigger and stronger than before and in a more high profile location where you can see them in the context of the main show gardens. There's even a bit of conceptual thinking creeping into other exhibits: check out the giant, hovering pink tap - entitled A Matter of Urgency, it represents bladder control issues on behalf of one of the main show garden sponsors Astellas Pharma.

Meanwhile there is poetry about oak trees and visual statements about disappearing hedgerows in the sustainable area.
I chatted to the artist behind conceptual garden The Pansy Project. Paul Harfleet simply plants pansies at the nearest available spot wherever homophobic abuse has taken place. I'm sure Hampton Court has been the site of its fair share of abuse over the centuries, so its quite fitting that his cracked slabs provide a darker context for the humble pansy that you are used to seeing in window boxes and hanging baskets.
The new floral marquee is fantastically huge, and thankfully for the growers, even if it does pour with rain this week, a little sturdier than the old tents that used to leak. And you can shop to your heart's content (always the big bonus for Hampton vs Chelsea, where you can't buy plants).  I came away with a white gaura and a ruby red achillea. Plus the new Gardens Illustrated pavilion will be the place to find a tasteful, zen-like spot out of the heat, to see some tantalisingly beautiful (but expensive) pots and country bouquets from Charlie Ryrie's Real Cut Flower Garden among other gorgeous things.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Food and the physic garden

This is Eucalyptus leucoxylon 'Rosea' at the Chelsea Physic Garden. I love the tassel-like flowers - they're kind of burlesque and cheeky.
The Physic Garden is one of those special London spaces - positively bursting with historical gems: over 300 years old, it's the cradle of botany and has features like the Grade II listed, oldest rock garden in Europe (surely that must be the world? does anyone know of an older one?), not to mention some gorgeous plants for both medicinal and pleasurable purposes. It feels like a million miles away from the city, once you're inside the walls. And now it's open until 10pm on Wednesday's through til the end of August which makes it the perfect after work venue for the plant fetishist. Favourites on this latest visit were the camouflage bark of a Luma ariculata, the coal black stems of a giant New Zealand tree fern; oh and the fabulous collection of salvias.
And as with all good garden visits, you can have a drink and eat there too. The Physic Garden has a great reputation for mouthwatering cakes. Even better, on evening openings, you can have dinner there too. The food is great, with an ex-River Cafe team doing a set menu for £23 (antipasti, lobster and sicilian lemon tart- yum). You have to be a member to book - but it means it never gets too crowded. A perfect summer night out in the city.