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.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Hot days and local treats

On the hottest weekend of the year, it's been hard prizing myself out of my stripey deckchair. It was just so nice sitting under the olive tree watching the bees decide whether to land on the lavender, peek into a foxglove, or buzz ecstatically in a poppy flower. It's not often that you get to say this about a British summer, but it really is too hot to do any gardening after about 10.30am. So I've kept my gardening activities low-key and local - no getting involved in crowded, sweaty tube lines or steamy traffic jams.
My garden visit was in the blissful cool of the evening and just a short stroll away. There was even a glass of wine thrown in with the NGS entrance fee. It was a first-time opening for No 4 Cumberland Park , W3, a garden that combined lovely structural planting, with immaculate grooming that can only be the result of hours of dedicated, passionate gardening. Favourite features were the trachelospermum that divided the garden, trained perfectly around the trellis, and the ruby red rose climbing up the ancient fruit tree. Owner Sarah Hamilton-Fairley, who created the garden with her husband and the guidance of designer Alison Wear, said they love it so much they never want to go on holiday. I hope they open again next year - it was a lovely surprise to find a garden like this in my neighbourhood and more people should get to see it.
Having seen such a lovely garden and spent some time just sitting in my own, I decided there are some gaps that need filling. So I paid a visit to Ginkgo Gardens in Hammersmith - a great urban garden centre, just a 15 minute bike ride away - on streets blissfully empty due to a certain football match that gripped the nation today.
I haven't been to Ginkgo for a for a year or so, and  found they've expanded with a beautiful, big cafe - shame that it means less room for plants, (people clearly like to drink coffee more than they like to garden). But the quality of the plants is very good. It's not somewhere you'd go for a bargain, but  theres a good range of perennials, shrubs and vegetables, with lots of good clear labelling and signposting where plants are UK or locally grown.
The staff were friendly and helpful, a 20cm box ball costs £15.99, they stock Vital Earth peat-free compost, Franchi vegetable seeds, have some wonderful big pots, and if I'd wanted to buy more than I could fit in my bicycle basket (1 stock and 1 laurentia), the delivery charge would only be £7.50. Not bad - I shall return.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Barges, bridges and trees

It's just been Open Garden Square's weekend. It started out in 1998 as an opportunity to peek inside those private communal gardens bordered by wrought iron railings that pepper children's story books, black and white films and Frank Sinatra ballads about London. This year 200 places were listed and all sorts of usually private gardens were throwing open their gates, even prisons.
I went to Garden Barge Square with Nick and Dan, probably the least 'square-like' of the destinations on offer. As the name suggests, it's a collection of seven old Dutch barges with colourful histories (from brothels to smuggling), that have ended up joined in horticultural harmony to create a floating garden on the Thames, with Tower Bridge looming picture-postcard-like on the westerly horizon. Beautiful plantings - trees, grasses, perennials, vegetables are all flourishing in long steel soil and manure-filled trenches that run the length of the barges. There are pathways, places to sit, bees and birds were abundant and even a ship's cat. They are a real inspiration to anyone with a small or soilless garden space. You really can make a garden anywhere.
They're open again next month under the National Garden Scheme, on 4 July. It's worth a visit.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sweet peas and dinner portions

Most home-grown vegetables are better than shop bought, that's a fact. But sometimes the taste index is off the scale. I raved about rhubarb and now I'm going to pronounce on peas. Those first ripening peas are so sweet and succulent that they are hard to resist eating straight from the pod. They are more like sweets than vegetables. So not many have made it to the dinner plate. To think that I hadn't eaten a fresh pea until about 10 years ago! I love them in among salads. But having finally managed to get a decent portion of peas back home from the allotment,  now a little more mature, they do benefit from a swift dunk in boiling water and are also delicious.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Posh allotments and garden parties

I went to my first garden party this week. It was quite an exclusive address in North Kensington, just around the corner from PM David Cameron's house, before he moved to no.10. Being a garden party in June, of course it rained, but the combination of flourishing vegetable beds, brightly coloured umbrellas, wellies and cagoules made it quintessentially English.
It was the first summer gathering of the St Quintin's Avenue kitchen gardeners. It must be the poshest allotment in London and if Heinken did allotments, they would probably be like this one.
The last time I visited was a freezing day back in December, when the plots had just been finished and filled with topsoil, so to see it all looking so abundant, and to talk to Anna, one of the founder members, and other growers and hear how excited and enthusiastic they are about their first harvestings was inspiring.
It's all the product of gardenless residents wanting to grow vegetables and lobbying the council. Being an inner london borough, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea doesn't have to comply with the legislation that if enough residents want an allotment, the council is obliged to find land to give them. But to their credit, RBKC found another solution and has given permission to set up small community kitchen garden plots on disused land in the borough.
The St Quintin's group has set up on an old tennis court, and there are now 12 other sites in the borough. In theory, these are temporary plots, with raised wooden planter beds, but seeing how much energy had gone into the St. Quinitin's garden, it feels like they will be growing vegetables on that tennis court for a very long time to come.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Kitchens, bathrooms and sheds

I have mentioned that my garden is very small. One of the consequences of having a diminutive outdoor space is that some of my wildest fantasies involve sheds and greenhouses and what I would do in them if I ever have enough room to have one. Disappointingly, there are no Carry-on Mellors style steamy windows or swoonings going on, but visions of many happy hours sowing seeds and potting on while listening to Radio 4; and generally being able to be in the garden, but sheltered from cold, wet and wind.
Nevertheless, as my husband likes to remind me, I do at least have one roof over my head. So the house has developed some shed-like features. The attic bathroom with velux window makes a fantastic greenhouse -with excellent ventilation. And the kitchen worktop doubles up as a good potting bench. I can even look out at the garden and pretend that I am in a shed.
If you also have to find indoor solutions to your shed activities, dry cleaning plastic bags make great surface protectors (they fit work surfaces and baths perfectly), and my other happy recyled solution was the leftover packaging of a bottled six pack of mineral water- carboard base and moulded plastic cover make an excellent transportable cold frame.
But I have to say I am very happy that most of my seedlings have now migrated outdoors and the spare bathroom is ready to receive guests again.