Monday, 22 March 2010

King of the hill

Every time I drive out of London westwards on the A40, I pass these primeval looking mounds on the outer reaches of Ealing. They have only been there a few years and tower above the road; and there's always someone walking on them.
I've always wondered what purpose they serve and have been trying to persuade a reluctant husband and dog that they are worth further investigation. Husband's argument has always been that a view of the A40 from on high is something he feels he could live without. And the dog, at nearly 14, is never very keen on climbing hills. While I sympathise with both, I think: how do we know what's on offer unless we see it for ourselves?
This week, I finally won this minor domestic battle and we went to climb the giant mounds at the romantically named Northala Fields. On the one hand I have to concede a point to my husband: the lovely spring weather had closed in, and the view was definitely a bit on the bleak side. To the North, Pinner Hill and to the East, the hazy spires of the City of London on the horizon. To the west, flatlands of housing estates stretching for mile after depressing mile, and of course the incessant drone of the busy road below. It's not up there in the league of knockout views.
But I think there is a really positive story here. Northala Fields is a new park in a pretty uninspiring part of London. Opened in 2008, the mounds were designed by landscape architect Peter Fink, built as a sound barrier from waste created by the new Wembley Stadium and Westfield shopping centre. Gabions filled with more crushed concrete have been used around the site. Below, planting is minimal, but there is a small series of interconnected waterways, with plenty of birds taking advantage. And most of all there are people coming to climb the mounds. Everyone that we saw came to climb them - either following the circular path to the top, or cutting straight up the middle.
It certainly isn't Glastonbury Tor, but maybe in the future, people will wonder if the Northala mounds once had some spiritual significance? (My husband is in no doubt that this will not be the case, particularly if the A40 is still in existence.) It's definitely a forward thinking landscape and you can't ignore the fact that those four mounds do appeal to a fundamental human compulsion - that urges us to climb up a hill or a mountain. Maybe it's just to see what's at the top, or what's on the other side. Maybe it's just so we can say that we did it.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mother's day

The florists have been in overdrive. Can mother's day possibly be bigger than valentine's? And if so, is that a positive thing? Anyway, it's one Hallmark holiday that it's hard to be sniffy about. The news was full of reports about the tardiness of this year's daffodils; and although my lovely Narcissus February Gold put in a timely appearance (well, several weeks late if their name is what you go by), they are not quite the right size or quantity for a bunch and I rather like them in my window box.
So, thoughts of what other flowers my mother might like took me to Wheelers in Turnham Green - my nearest garden shop. Let this then be the first of my informal reviews of London garden centres. I want to see how they fulfil the needs of the city gardener and I promise I will either cycle or get there on public transport and see how each one measures up. 
Wheelers is very handy for me - barely half a mile away. But it only just qualifies as a garden centre - it's firstly a florists, with a landscaping business, and secondly a place where the discerning, and probably quite flush, garden owner goes with a shopping list for a small London garden. There is a good selection of evergreen shrubs - box, box and more clipped box, and some bay trees and olives; a 5l box ball (that bastion of all urban window boxes and pots) will set you back £15 - the mature olives around £1000. There's a good range of terracotta and other containers in varying sizes, and some nice accessories for One's conservatory, if One has one, such as mirrors and signs.
Proper gardening kit like compost is hidden away in a cupboard and while there is no peat-free available, a bag of organic compost will set you back £5. But parking is a nightmare and you'd have to spend a bit more than a fiver to get a free delivery. It's definitely not a gardeners' garden centre - there are no really unusual plants, no seeds, tools, or vegetable plants - which so many garden centres are cashing in on these days. And it's definitely not good for bargains. But staff are helpful, if not that knowledgable, and will get in plants on request. And if you want to walk away with a pretty window box, then it's the perfect place to go. Here, below, is what I put together for my mother: some Muscari 'Blue magic' in this really rather cute container. It all fitted perfectly in my bicycle basket so I could get it home, and my Italian Mamma was very happy.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

First gardening day of spring

I feel normal again. The sun shone, I indulged in my first bit of horticultural retail therapy of the season, visited a beautiful garden and got my hands in some soil at last.
It was a frisky 4 degrees, but the blue skies drew crowds of buyers and sellers to Chiswick Car Boot Sale. First Sunday of the month is always a good opportunity for a gardening bargain. In amongst the original Home Pride collectables, novelty teapots and second hand Prada shoes, I found a  a very good small-headed hoe (£2), four pots of just emerging tulips (£3), and some excellently warm thick woollen socks, perfect for wellies (but very handy at the time as my feet were frozen). Meanwhile, fellow carbooter Ian, sensibly wearing his football manager sheepskin, went home with a very nice standard olive tree for his Pimlico balcony (£15). Other items of note were the seller who had dug up his (or someone else's) garden and was flogging a range of slightly sad-looking shrubs, completely bare-rooted and of dubious health. I didn't enquire after the prices.
As the sale takes place opposite Chiswick House, it would have been rude not to pop into the park and see how the restoration project is going. It seems to have been taking forever and it's nearly there - there are fewer areas cordoned off with orange plastic and it's easier to see how lovely the finished park will look, all those historic views and pathways back to how they were meant to be. But while the planting is following tradition, it's great to see that the park cafe is fantastically modernist. Beautiful composite concrete that looks like travertine marble, with vast windows and a portico with views to the house. Well done English Heritage for not going down the obvious route of a twee, reproduction building. I hope it will be using produce from Chiswick House Kitchen Garden later in the year.