Sunday, 30 May 2010

Purveyors of perfection

Chelsea is all over for another year. After so many hours of TV coverage and acres of print and digital media, it was a great addition to the week to have a Vista night at the Garden Museum on Thursday with some real life chat and amicable banter about the show. Top billing was winner Andy Sturgeon and his best-in-show rival Tom Stuart Smith, chatting to Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury. Landscape designer Brita von Schoenaich likened Andy's win this year to beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon - Tom has three best-in-show medals.
It was great to hear both designers talk about their Chelsea gardens in person (they were obviously tired and a bit hoarse from interviews), debate the judging process and discuss the big Sustainability issue. In the old days (not so very many years ago), gardens would just be dismantled and dumped. Now, they mostly get sold off, recycled or rebuilt, so that's progress. But gardens are still shipped in from Australia (naming no names), and most of the trucks delivering to the site run on diesel. So there is still a way to go. But the evening wasn't all worthier than thou discussions. 
My favourite quote was Tom Stuart-Smith on the perfectionism of show gardens, admitting: "Occasionally I get a client who comes to see my show garden and says: why doesn't my garden look like this!" Catch the full evening on the Gardens Illustrated podcast series soon.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Hot stuff at Chelsea

 Posted by Picasa

Sunny and Chelsea Flower Show are not words I have used in the same sentence very often over the last 7 years. But today, instead of taking shelter in the floral pavilion for reasons of cold or wet, I was one of many people trying to get out of the sun. Hats and red shoulders were the latest accessories and the heat was the big talking point: wilting flowers and people. The tulips were suffering in particular. But at least the dahlia display looked less unseasonal.  It really felt like high summer and was hard to remember those late frosts barely 10 days ago.
There's so much coverage of the show everywhere that I'm not going to even try and compete. But just for the record, I'm putting my money on Andy Sturgeon to win best in show. His was the garden that made me go wow. I haven't actually been to the betting shop, and will no doubt kick myself if this time tomorrow if he is indeed the winner. But while Tom Stuart-Smith also deserves gold, Andy just had the edge this year. Those controversial copper irises (mutterings of do they work as container plants - YES!) - looked stunning, and the amazing heat of the day made them sing out loud.  

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Shoes, plants and aardvarks

I used to have a thing about shoes. These days I get the same sugar-rush when I see gorgeous plants that I simply have to have. Invariably (as with the shoes), I have no room for them, nothing to pair them with and probably can't afford them. The good news is that plants are a lot cheaper than shoes and there's no risk of turning my ankle on impractical but gorgeous heels. So I don't have to make so many excuses, or end up with a big credit card bill.
Over the past week I've lost count of the number of plants I've bought. A week off work, holidaying at home included a visit to Beth Chatto's with husband and dog. It was a freezing day, so her immaculate gardens - amazing ferns and epimediums this time of year -  were the perfect reminder of spring and helped combat the bleakness of the Essex skies. Husband admired a lemon-drop yellow troillus and a pieris, and amused himself with the latin labels, christening a giant, perfectly clipped yew cone: 'cornetto invertus'.
Meanwhile, I went shopping. I stuck to my planting script in part, coming away with an intended Miscanthus gracillimus (one of my favourites), and a Ranunculus 'Brazen Hussy' which I have coveted mostly for its name (one day I will plant it to nestle at the foot of a Rosa 'Rambling Rector'). But I was seduced by the lovely heart-shaped foliage of a never-encountered-before Maianthemum and a few other items and the lady at the till smiled knowingly when I dashed back for a camassia. Back in London I popped in on a lovely riverside garden in Chiswick open to raise money for Macmillan nurses and promising plants for sale. I was late and most of the best had gone, but I couldn't leave empty-handed, so tucked four dwarf broad beans into my bicycle basket. A Capel Manor open day in Gunnersbury park a day later had an irresistble 3 for a fiver deal, so two echinaceas and an echinops slipped in. I'll find a spot for them.
Luckily my plant buying was tempered by some zookeeping at Colchester Zoo. This was an inspired Christmas present from my husband, and although there wasn't much about plants involved, I did find out that Lemurs like eating goat willow. And I got to pat a rhino and tickle an aardvark.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Bluebells and pigs

Posted by Picasa
My favourite place to see bluebells in London is Holland Park. You can't stroll through them, but you get these gorgeous views through the trees across a sea of shimmering blue that momentarily makes you feel like you're miles away and that a haywain might suddenly appear round the corner. Or even a pig.
Only this year, you might actually get to see a porker in the park in one of London's best postcodes. It's not a creature you'd normally associate with this part of town. But four saddleback pigs have been brought in for a couple of months as part of the woodland management programme. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had to choose between chemicals or pigs, and the porkers won.Their rooting around will naturally grub up bulbs and wildflowers that have become congested - so next year's bluebells will look even more stunning.
But while it is a beautiful spot, the park is over fond of rules and regulations: dogs on leads and no skateboarding are top of the list. While my skateboarding is hardly going to suffer, I do like the dog to be able to potter about of his own free will; with so much other animal life about (black rabbits and peacocks too), I might bedgrudgingly admit that it's not an unreasonable request. But do they need quite so many signs to remind you? There are so many that I almost missed the notice about the pigs.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Imperfect timing and eau de rhubarb

Everything is late this year. It's official. Late spring, late sowing of seeds, transplanting, flowering. That long winter has a lot to answer for.  And we're experiencing some pretty brisk temperatures again this past week. Consequently, the at-work allotment is looking a little skimpy and the turnout for seed sowing has been thin - unseasonal weather and too many meetings sometimes get in the way. But one thing it hasn't affected is the rhubarb.
Rhubarb is a perennial veg and as such is quite low maintenance. You just have to be patient.  We planted a crown, (a perfect name for this quite regal vegetable) almost 18 months ago and I watched tantalisingly as it established through last summer - you're not supposed to pull the stalks until its second year of growth. But I popped into the allotment on election day, on my way home to vote, just see how things were doing and give things a water. The rhubarb is looking splendid, all lush leaves and pink stalks. I plucked four or five and had an intoxicating ride home with the glorious scent of fresh stalks wafting from my bicycle basket. It's my new favourite smell - better than freshly mown grass. And the resulting crumble was outstanding; husband gave it a rave review.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Jellybeans, candyfloss and Barbara Cartland

It's not been bad for a May Day bank holiday. Gusty and cold after a month's worth of rain, but enough sunshine to make it worth seeing some gardens. So I persuaded Dan, Nick and Ian to join me on the Great Garden trail. This grand title makes it sound like a horticultural magical mystery tour; the reality was not so much a trail, as an alternative NGS open day - without the cakes. We picked three south London gardens, two of which were perfectly nice, text book designs, but somehow failed to inspire. Luckily, Ian and I caught Charles Rutherford's back garden just before he shut up shop. This was the one that got my big wow. I don't know what it looks like the rest of the year, but it really packs a big spring punch into a small space. Loved the Barbara Cartland pink tulips. I want those in my garden next year.
So the spring bank holiday is over, a change of government looms like a dark cloud and the weather forecast is for continued icelandic blasts of cold and unseasonal air. I think we should raise a glass to April and commit to memory these past few weeks of near-perfect weather, spring at its most gorgeous, full of hope for a hot summer and anticipation of a new growing season.

London in April was like a trippy sweet shop (cue Beatles pastiche music and psychedelic animations...). Days of clear blue skies (momentarily plane-free); bone-and-soil-warming sunshine; candyfloss pink cherry blossom trees lining suburban streets, jellybean-coloured tulips bobbing through flowerbeds all over town, fizzy lime new leaves unfurling before my eyes, and unmown grass glittering with spangle-like dandelions and sherbert daisies. Yum.