Monday, 26 April 2010

Superior scones and houseleeks

Posted by Picasa
Yesterday I took a trip out of town with the dog (am husbandless due to a certain sporting event in Sheffield). We went to one of my favourite places, to visit Jan at Pook Hill Barn in deepest East Sussex. In addition to endless cups of tea and gossip around her kitchen table, with assorted visitors, dogs and chickens, we popped down the road to Firle Place, near Lewes. It's one of those big houses that seems to have survived economic crises, and two World Wars, and avoided ownership by the National trust, so it still home to the same family that owns most of the surrounding land as well.
The gardens are on the wild side, and the best views were the swathes of daffs with cowslips coming up beneath. Nice to see some wordsworthian daffodils, thanks to cooler temperatures in East Sussex (I feel like I missed the daffodil peak while I was in San Francisco). The house only opens a few days a year and on Sunday it was for the National Garden Scheme. So I can tick off my first NGS visit for the year.
There were the usual country fayre purveyors of local jams, pies and cheeses, a man making willow trugs and some very fetching owls for the Falconry display. The 'art' area was full of rather unappealing 'crafts' - you know the sort of thing: plastic windmills, stained glass, sad watercolours, all utterly useless and undesirable; a pact has been made that if at some point in the future I walk into one of those tents of tat and actually want to buy something, I will have to be summarily shot. But thankfully, as I had hoped, there were lots of plant stalls - about 20 or so local growers with loads of plants for sale, mostly between £1 and £5, and not your usual run-of-the-mill selection.
My lovely friend is not a gardener, but she was very patient with me as I suddenly turned into a cross between a small child in a sweet shop and an eccentric aunt (I was suffering from a severely blocked left ear that not even some vigorous digging and weeding on Saturday couldn't shift, so was deaf and quite oblivious to much of what she was saying). But, under my instructions, she happily sorted out a whole veg patch's worth of plug plants for £15, while I found a lovely selection of houseleeks to take home, on second thoughts decided against an elphantine-leaved sedum (wrongly named s. matrona), and left with my plant cravings not quite satisfied. So had to stop at a farm shop that yielded a camassia, a couple of small aubergine plants, a small pot of basil and some gladioli, for under a tenner.
Shopping always whets the appetite and the cake situation at Firle Place had been a bit disappointing - not up to usual NGS standards. So, back at Pook Hill, Jan made some infinitely superior scones. In true lazy Sunday style, the promise to dig over the veg patch somehow never materialised. Sorry Jan: next time!

Posted by Picasa

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Tulips, tennant's and the graveyard

The tulips we coaxed into the concrete-like soil of St. Mary's Burial Ground back in October have arrived like a spring carnival. I'm not sure that 400 made it through the combined ravages of squirrels, November rain and frozen ground, but there are enough to make it feel like it was worth all the effort and subsequent aches and pains. And they are doing a great job of distracting from the takeaway wrappers, plastic bags and beer cans and bottles (can you spot one in the picture?).
I like having a burial ground at the end of the road. This might seem strange; I don't harbour any latent goth tendencies. I like it because it give us trees and green space, where there might otherwise be a block of flats. So, while some posh neighbourhoods have communal gardens, we have a communal cemetary. It's pretty full up, and there are no fresh burials going on (that might be a bit too weird), so it really is a peaceful resting place.
Council and Church don't pay it too much attention, so every now and then we do a bit of  Neighbourhood gardening.  Today, with Luciana from No 4, we planted out some of my ever expanding collection of cuttings and seedlings and some donated second hand plants. Plants have to be tough and left to get on with growing - and able to withstand bruiser dogs and the careless people they bring with them. It may not win any prizes, but it looks a little more loved than it used to.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Dirty fingernails - at last

That manicure is not going to happen now. The days are longer, the temperature a few degrees warmer and the sun, comfortably clearing the rooftops by mid-morning, is now bathing both my little north-facing garden and the work allotment for a good portion of the day. My hands are in and out of the soil as much as possible: in the morning, in between sips of coffee - a little tweak here and there; at lunchtime in between meetings, pushing beetroot seeds and beans into the raised beds; in the evening, before I've even put my key in the front door, I'm pinching out spent blooms from my windowbox, and then I can't help but tuck a few new seeds into a pot before dinner. So a manicure would be a poor investment.
This week in the garden my husband has made progress recycling our old slate bathroom floor into hard landscaping; the attic bathroom has been converted into my spring greenhouse (no more guests for a while); I have been rediscovering plants that I'd either forgotten or thought would never survive the winter; been reminded which tulip bulbs I planted as they come into flower (Aladdin's Record); and  moved oversized shrubs to give me more growing space. This last is long overdue and I feel so much better for opening up the congested borders. Although the dog thinks it's an invitation to rampage through my plants, so I must fill the gaps soon: I will add scent, taste, colour and texture - new plants will have to earn their keep.

Friday, 9 April 2010

A San Francisco post script

Back in London; fuzzy with jetlag; delighted to find that spring has arrived. Too busy out seeing stuff to blog more than twice from SF,  I'm already looking back nostalgically at some of the people and places (and trees) I encountered.
At the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, I got my first taste of the California obsession with succulents. Planted in frames, wreaths and whole carpets of them, they are perfect for the dry climate and a good gardening antidote to the astronomic cost of water, which is making Californians
seriously reconsider their love of  thirsty lawns.
The show was a great taster session for the gardening scene in North cal, which is thriving. Bumped into stateside bloggers and gardening entrepreneurs Jayme Jenkins and Theresa Loe and was flattered to find myself given minor celebrity status thanks to my contributions to the much revered Gardens Illustrated. Edible and native plants are also big gardening themes in SF. Great to see nurseries like Annie's Annuals and the excellently named Digging Dog; and I loved the Dan's Dahlias display. Also a big fan of the hypertufa pottery made by Urban FarmGirls - not least because it is so light I was able to bring a piece home with me and not pay excess baggage. 
Flora Grubb is, I'm told, quite a San Francisco character. And very big in the world of succulent walls. I didn't have the pleasure of meeting her, but I did go to her wonderful garden shop. Every city should have a Flora Grubb - it's what urban gardening needs. Great plants, containers and ideas for rooftops, terraces and the smaller plot - and great coffee and cake too: you need sugar when you're shopping.
Another SF icon is Ruth Bancroft who started her succulent garden in the 1970s. Now aged 102, she is a good advert for the benefits of gardening and an inspiration for starting her garden so late - and for being way ahead of the game. She uses cacti and succulents on a large, garden scale, like Gertrude Jekyll used perennials, grouped for shape, texture and colour. It's strange, fascinating - and spiky!

I also went out of town to visit Cornerstone. It's a very entertaining and fascinating collection of garden installations a la Chaumont, up in Sonoma. The passionate patron Teresa Raffo is intent on driving this project forward and I can't wait to see the new installations coming up this summer. It brings the gardens/art debate/condundrum up and makes a great day out - it's a very hands-on show garden experience and you get to see the work of some of the top US landscape architects all in one place: John Greenlee, James Van Sweden; and Topher Delaney to name a few.
Further north, the charming Silvina and Eric Blasen showed me a spectacular project they have been working on up in the hills around Healdsburg. It sums up California gardening beautifully - stunning views and planting combined with surrounding native oaks that dripped picturesquely with lichens: a precision planned garden in a dramatic natural setting. We travelled with the equally charming and very entertaining Marion Brenner, the west coast gardens photographer, who knows everyone there is to know in the world of landscaping.
It's fascinating how dynamic their gardening world seems: it's at the forefront of design, commanding respect and passion on many levels. Gardening California style is bold and forward thinking - we could do with a bit of that American oomph back home.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Seeds and another city, part 2

Posted by Picasa
Every front patch, alleyway, rooftop and roadside in San Francisco seems to be cultivated in some way. Even in the wonderfully named Dog Patch, a neighbourhood that is currently sitting somewhere in that post-industrial, pre-gentrification time zone, streets are tree-lined.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised in a city where Golden Gate Park, the biggest green space, was built out of Sand Dunes. Naysayers told its creator John McLaren that it couldn't be done. But with 100,000 tonnes of manure, and an equal volume of determination, he found the right plants and transformed a desert into the green heart of the city.
It's where San Franciscans spend their Sundays and at the Ocean Beach Chalet, the story of the big greening is told against the backdrop of some fabulous murals. But Golden Gate is not just a park. Yes, apart from all those big hippy events of the sixties, it's the location of the Botanical Gardens, Arboretum, tulip garden and the fabulous De Young Museum, which successfully brings together American Art, design and architecture, with sculpture gardens and a wonderful fern court pictured above. I love the way the collection of tree ferns splices the corten steel exterior of the building.
And the De Young offers one of the best views of the city from the roof. No better way to appreciate the greenness of the city than from on high.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Seeds and another city, part 1

I've been in San Francisco for a week now where I've found an explosion of colour and plants that has sent my head spinning. Wild lupins and roadside echiums; lush lollipop-pruned fig trees lining the streets; unpicked lemons dripping from front garden trees, succulents galore and California poppies, of course. Magnolias are in flower, and ceanothus; at the same time as bluebells; daffodils and tulips are the most outlandish of all. It's a cacophony of colour. Not our gentle, well-behaved spring palette of fresh greens with yellow then pinks and whites and blues...

The abundance here is refreshing and exhilarating after the long winter at home - but at the same time intimidating. Here you just stick something in the ground and it seems to grow with abandon. It feels like we have to work really hard in England, but maybe that's what makes good gardeners of us?