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Cottesbrooke – a perfectly lovely little plant fair

June 26, 2012

I went to the Cottebrooke Gardeners’ Fair on Saturday. This is the fair’s fifth year but only my first time visiting. It always gets raved about as being a real plants person’s plant fair. It has a hand-picked selection of specialist little nurseries and garden sundry companies selling interesting plants and garden equipment, including those that you can’t get just anywhere. The fair takes place in the grounds of Cottesbrooke Hall in the Northamptonshire countryside.

Cottesbrooke Gardeners’ Fair takes place in the 18th century landscaped grounds of Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire

I took a small shopping list with me and was very good as I more or less stuck to it, buying a few plants from Meadowgate, Hardy’s, Edulis and another nursery, which I have shamefully forgotten the name of. I wanted all the tools from Niwaki but resisted. The fair was indeed very good – pleasant surroundings, never felt crowded and the exhibitors were all of a high quality and good mix. Even hubs enjoyed it. He particularly liked the Edulis stand with their unusual edibles. Although we didn’t go to any, there was also a marquee with talks from gardening slebs and experts throughout the day.

For those who have to travel some distance to the fair and who may want to visit next year, we drove up on Friday night and stayed in Highgate House (which we booked for a cheap price with – a good value hotel with friendly staff and decent food just 2 miles down the road from Cottesbrooke Hall.

Despite getting stuck in the mud in the car park on the way in I’m pretty certain I’ll be returning again next year.

Loved all the valerian (Valeriana officials) which dominated and towered over the rather wild, long herbaceous borders running from the side of the house

Queen Anne house at Cottesbrooke – the family home of the Macdonald-Buchanan family

The Mitchell Bridge dating from c.1765 – over which the main driveway approaching the house runs

More photos on Flickr here.

Easton Walled Gardens

June 21, 2012

Having driven past Easton Walled Gardens on countless journeys back to the shire I finally managed to visit yesterday. It’s just off the A1 in Lincolnshire, by the junction we always take on our trips back ‘home’. Admittedly this is often at non-friendly times for garden visiting – usually late on a Friday night (gardens closed and us frazzled after a week of work and 3 hours driving) or late on a Sunday on our way back down to London (gardens closed and us frazzled after a weekend of family) – but I knew of its story and I would always see the sign for the garden and think ‘I really must visit there someday’ as we cruised on by. So when an invitation from Ursula to a Midsummer Lunch press event dropped into my inbox I jumped at the chance. It was a perfect excuse to visit the lost gardens.

Sir Henry Cholmeley first bought Easton, nestled in a little valley of the River Witham, in 1592. The original conveyance listed a manor, orchards, meadows and gardens and the estate has been in the family ever since. Sadly the grand old house that was once there, Easton Manor, fell into disrepair and was pulled down in 1951. The gardens were abandoned and soon became overgrown and engulfed by elder, brambles and 20ft trees. The only original buildings that remain today are the gatehouse and stableyard. The gardens, over 400 years old, were almost completely lost before Ursula started to rescue them from dereliction in 2001.

We were encouraged to wander the grounds before lunch. The place was looking wonderful on this balmy midsummer’s day. From the drinks reception I walked through the Pickery and the cottage garden, past the greenhouses, vegetable garden and compost heaps and came out to a vantage point alongside the terraces, looking down to the river (as seen in the picture above). Swallows were swooping and diving all around. It was a beautiful view. The garden has an air of romance and tinge of sadness about it knowing that the old house has gone and the gardens almost vanished. On the other hand the rejuvenation of the gardens is a joyous one and the love and passion that Ursula and her team have for the place really shines through.

Ursula is big on meadows and I loved the use of them on the slopes of the terraces and in the old kitchen garden where roses have been planted in long grass. The Pickery full of cut flowers, orderly vegetable garden and colourful cottage garden were also all looking great. It really was an enchanting place, one that I look forward to re-visiting and recommending friends and family to visit too. Easton is also very welcoming of children so it’s a great garden for those with little ones curious to explore and play.

A view looking down the terraces, over the Witham and what used to be the large walled kitchen garden beyond – this contains the yew tunnel running down the middle and rose meadows and orchard on either side. Just in front of the walled garden are the two long borders

Taken from the ornamental bridge over the River Witham, looking back up the terraces. You can just make out a dot of a person on the top of the terraces, which is where the old house once stood

The rose meadow with David Austin roses planted in long grass

The long flower borders which run alongside the river

Pretty stone archway. The initials of Sir Montague Cholmeley, who did much work on the house and gardens in the 1800s, can be seen in the iron gates

The yew tunnel. It was planted in 1852 and is 106 metres long. In the garden’s heyday it formed two dense, 15ft high hedges

Looking along one of the grass terraces where the summer meadows on the slopes are starting to flower

The Cottage Garden

The Vegetable Garden

The Pickery. Provides cut flowers for the garden and they allow visitors to pick varieties they like for inspiration in their own gardens too

Sweet peas growing up canes in the Pickery. Every year hundreds of sweet peas are raised from seed and planted in the Pickery, vegetable and cottage gardens. Easton opens for a Sweet Pea week at the beginning of July

Sunset Sail in New York

June 15, 2012

Whilst we were in New York we went on a two-hour sunset sail on a replica of an old schooner on the Hudson. Although it was warm the weather had been a little changeable that day. At one point we thought it might get rained off. There was a heavy downpour just before our trip but then luckily it cleared up, stayed dry and turned out glorious.

It was a beautiful evening and I think it was perhaps the most brilliant thing we’ve ever done in NY so I thought I’d share some pictures.

Waiting for the boat to set sail. Crepuscular rays (so a member of the crew told us!) through the clouds as they started to clear.

Hoisting the sail

Feet leave the ground

Plenty of bubbly

Colourful buildings on Manhattan

Fabulous view of the Empire State

Manhattan island, Hudson to the left, East River to the right. A smaller sister schooner just in the foreground. You can just make out Brooklyn Bridge to the east (right) of Manhattan

Statue of Liberty

In all her glory

Sunset behind Ellis Island

Big yellow macs are provided if you’re feeling a little chilly

Sun disappearing behind Jersey

Golden – as the sun hit the horizon we had the most beautiful light

Glittering towers – the skyscrapers twinkle as they reflect the sunset

Returning to dock

Almost dark on Manhattan

Bringing down the sails

We did our sunset sail with Classic Harbor Line, which went from Chelsea Pier to the Statue of Liberty and back again. In winter the boat we were on spends the season in Key West. Sounds like a fabulous idea I say.

Back on the High Line

June 12, 2012

We’ve just returned from a fantastic week in New York. A friend of ours is out there on a two-year stint with work – the lucky bugger. Happily for us he welcomed us to his apartment where we stayed for the duration of our trip (thank you Alan!). He’s living in the West Village on Manhattan – an historic, leafy, residential area that used to be all boho and arty. These days it’s a very gentrified, clean and desirable part of town, popular with families and celebrities. I can totally see the appeal. It’s an attractive neighbourhood with pretty tree-lined streets. Great little coffee shops, bars and local restaurants litter the blocks. It has a very relaxed and comfortable vibe to the place. For us it was great spending time experiencing a different side of New York, away from the canyons of Midtown and Downtown. I love New York all the more for it. One of the best things for me (aside from all the gastronomy on our doorstep) was that the apartment was just a mere ten blocks away from the start of the High Line in the Meatpacking District. Ten blocks that feel like a walk in the park when the stroll is through the green and pleasant streets of the West Village in the June sunshine. The first time we were up on the High Line, a year and a half ago at the end of autumn, the second section hadn’t opened yet so I was excited to go and check it out as well as to see the park during summer. We didn’t waste much time getting ourselves up there.

Having fun on the High Line {Taken by hubs – that’s me in the blue top with my camera}

On our first morning in the city we were up pretty early. The weather was balmy and by the time we headed out for a delicious breakfast at Joseph Leonard’s in the Village at around 8.30 the weather was already in the 20s.

Big breakfast at Joseph Leonard’s. The sprouts with sriracha chilli sauce was delish!

We wandered up West 4th (full of fab little restaurants – I can highly recommend Café Cluny and Mary’s Fish Camp) towards Meatpacking and got on the start of the Line on Gansvoort Street. We walked the entire length, which probably took us at least twice as long as most folk what with me stopping every few metres to look at something or take a photo. I have an eternally patient hubs.

As on our first visit I loved how well used the park is by visitors and locals alike. The High Line has been a huge success story attracting almost 150,000 visitors a week. Its popularity was evident by the number of people we saw enjoying all it has to offer. New Yorkers were catching rays, reading or having a break on the loungers whilst others were grabbing coffee and a gossip. There were plenty of tourists trekking by or resting their weary legs and taking in the views, school groups were on educational visits, arty types were doing photo shoots, families were out giving their kids a run around, others were just walking through using the line as a handy, pleasant route on their way to elsewhere. The place was full of life.

People on the High Line

From lazing in the sun to educational visits. All types and ages hang out on the line

The planting (a mixture of perennials, grasses, trees and shrubs, which was designed to mimic the landscape that had self-seeded on the derelict line before it was resurrected as a public park), was lush and green, quite a difference to the swathes of golden autumn colours on our first visit. My favourite section is still the Chelsea Grasslands area.

Plants on the High Line. Clockwise from top left: large orange spikes of Eremurus stenophyllus; floaty Echinacea pallida ‘Hula Dancer’ (love that name – it really suits them too!); bees were loving the Baptisia alba; and also loving the Dalea purpurea; crimson cushions of Knautia macedonica ‘Mars Midget’; dramatic flowers of a smoke bush (Cotinus) against a building; a rather bedraggled swallowtail butterfly flitting around the Monarda bradburiana; yellow heads of Achillea filipendulina ‘Parker’s Variety’ poking up through the bench seating.

As we were staying so close to the High Line it meant we were able to nip through on several further occasions, using it as a traffic-free, scenic route on our way to and from various places during the week. It was great to see it at different times of day and weather. Each time you notice new things. The light will have changed and different plants come in and out of focus or into flower. There is so much to look at and discover, as well as being great for people watching!

Passing through one evening. The High Line opens until 11pm during the summer.

Rainbow over the Empire State, taken from the High Line after a heavy rain shower

Astilbe chinensis ‘Visions in Pink’, which were not yet in full bloom just days before, grab all the attention on our last day in NY.

Eryngium yuccifolium in the foreground with views over the Hudson and towards Jersey beyond

The Woodland Flyover – part of the second section which opened last year. Construction for the third and final section (the Rail Yards) is hoped to start this year.

The High Line run various events and tours – you can hear talks from the gardeners and designers and find out about the art and sculpture or the wildlife on the Line. Sadly we weren’t able to fit any of these in this trip. They have a great website with loads of information on it, including comprehensive plant lists, which you can find here. If you are heading to NY I would highly recommend a visit!

For more High Line photos see my Flickr feed here.

Chelsea Flower Show 2012

May 25, 2012

It’s that time of year again. My favourite time of year actually. When everything starts happening: the garden is lush and starting to romp away (along with all the weeds – eek); the sun has FINALLY made an appearance in a very summery fashion; the days are longer which means evening meals outdoors; the diary is chocka with plenty of fun; and it’s also that time when everyone can’t fail but to notice gardens and plants and to take an interest, even if just for a tiny second, thanks to the theatre that is Chelsea Flower Show.

I was there on Monday and Tuesday this week, took far too many photos for me to deal with quickly and have only just got round to sorting through them. I hope you haven’t reached your limit of Chelsea chat. Well, tough wellies if you have. I’ll be darned if I don’t manage to post a few of my hundreds of photos on here. In an attempt to keep it brief (!) I’ve just chosen a few of my very favourite gardens.

Cleve West’s Brewin Dolphin Garden

This was the first garden I came to at the top of Main Avenue. It was a dull old morning on Press Day, the light wasn’t kind to anyone, but despite that the planting here was singing. The contemporary, informal arrangement of plants around the formal structure of topiaried yews really did it for me. It was so well executed. This man has a way with plants. The result of his loose mix of perennials and annuals worked better, I thought, than the same naturalistic style of planting seen elsewhere at the show. I loved the zingy reds of the poppies and lime green bracts of the euphorbias leaping out at you amongst the more subtle greens, whites and purples.

Joe Swift’s Homebase Garden

I didn’t think I was going to like this garden before I saw it. The PR pamphlet through the post showed a murky, blurry, uninspiring computer graphic and my glimpse of it on TV on the Sunday night didn’t convince me either. But then I saw it in the flesh and I was completely sold. The russet and umber colours were warming and inviting, the planting was original, the cedar wood frames shipped over from Germany didn’t overpower the garden as I thought they might but broke up the linear plot in a pleasing way, revealing the garden as your eye progressed. I spent a good amount of time staring at this, taking photos and wandering around it. You could really see everything in this garden, if that makes any sense. Each element stood its own yet complemented each other perfectly. I loved the choice and use of the trees in the garden.

Inspired by an urban environment Joe used dry-tolerant plants. I like the twinkling white flowers of Libertia grandiflora against the predominantly darker, warmer tones

Jihae Hwang’s Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden

The most thought-provoking garden (not that there was much contest) at the show was the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ) garden. Designed to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean conflict the garden was planted with indigenous plants that have thrived on the narrow, untouched strip of land that acts as a buffer between North and South Korea. Heavily guarded and a rather dangerous place for people, it has become a haven for plants and wildlife and has developed, in stark contrast to the war-ravaged peninsular, into something of an ecological treasure. Despite this show garden’s unfortunate location next to Diarmuid Gavin’s pyramidal playground and a restaurant marquee it somehow managed to feel authentic and atmospheric. It felt like it had actually been there for years – it’s boggling how they managed to achieve this. The majority of the plants were native to, and imported from, South Korea. Not a show garden that you aspire to emulate at home, no. But definitely one that forces you to reflect on the conflict and the people it has affected as well as on the insistent march of nature, its beauty despite the destructive nature of man and its ability to heal. Happily the garden won gold.

You can read a recent Guardian article on the Korean DMZ here: ‘How wildlife is thriving in the Korean peninsula’s demilitarised zone


A stream flows through the garden, oblivious to north-south barriers

Sitting quietly below Diarmuid’s pyramid

The little details

Elsewhere at the show…

Sarah Price, the Fine Art graduate and young garden designer who has also had a hand in the landscaping of the Olympic Park, designed a show garden for the Daily Telegraph that took its inspiration from the British countryside. It had three main sections – a meadow, water area and a woodland. It was one that really benefitted from the rays of sunshine shimmering down on it on Tuesday. It really lifted it and made the garden come to life. I overheard someone say on press day that they were suffering from ‘cow parsley fatigue’. Unfortunately for the poor man I think the wildflower meadow look may be here to stay for a while yet.

The meadow area with the water and woodland beyond.

And the meadow on a sunny Tuesday

Kazuyuki Ishihara’s Satoyama Life garden was a beautiful one in the Artisan garden section. Satoyama is a Japanese term for the area between the mountain foothills and the flat, arable lowlands, where people traditionally lived in a close and harmonious relationship with the land. The mossy garden sat well in the shady surroundings of Ranelagh Gardens. I love those shiny, huge stones. Don’t you just want to touch them!

Satoyama Life garden

That’s it for now (phew, I hear you cry). I plan to upload more photos from Chelsea to my Flickr stream, if I ever get round to it.

National Gardens Scheme

April 4, 2012

Spring has most certainly arrived with the start of the garden-visiting season upon us. And what better way to celebrate than by visiting beautiful and interesting gardens in the warm fuzzy knowledge that you are doing your bit for a good cause at the same time? This year is the 85th anniversary of the National Gardens Scheme. If you’ve never heard of it before it’s a scheme that raises money through garden visiting, tea and cake! Every year hundreds of gardens all over the country (over 3,800 this year), many of them private, open to the public and charge a modest fee for entry. Impressively 83p in every pound raised goes to charity – mainly nursing and caring beneficiaries including Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Help the Hospices and Crossroads Care. Last year 2.6 million was raised in total for nursing, caring and gardening charities.

Yellow is the colour

Participating gardens are listed annually in the famous Yellow Book. You can order your 2012 copy (£9.99) online here. The NGS has rigorous and high entry criteria so you always know that gardens will have passed a minimum standard making it worthy of inclusion in to the scheme. For the first time this year the NGS has launched a free iPhone app making finding gardens to visit even easier. The NGS can also be found on Twitter here. Who says garden visiting is fuddy-duddy?

Hidden gems

Last year I visited Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden in Hertfordshire on its NGS open day (I’m tempted to revisit again this year to see how the prairie he had sown is doing). I look forward to discovering many more gems in the book this season.

This year Dawn Isaac, author of Garden Crafts for Children and owner of this lovely garden in Cambridgeshire is opening her place for the first time in June. I’m hoping to make it to that.

Right, I’m off to have a cup of tea, perhaps a biscuit or two, and to flick through my Yellow Book to see what’s opening near me this Easter weekend. Happy garden visiting everyone!

Still the tree stands

April 4, 2012

This is the view looking out to the bottom of our garden. It’s facing west so the sun sets behind these stately boughs. Pretty isn’t it? These shots were taken from upstairs but from ground level there is a Robinia in front of a silver birch in front of these two trees (an oak and an ash), which frame and layer the view. It makes for an appealing outlook at the end of a garden that sits near the edge of a vast urban sprawl. I am guessing they pre-date the house (there is a broken string of old, large trees running behind this road of houses) and are probably remnants of the wood that once stood here. These houses have been here for around 80 years so the trees must be older than that.

Those who follow me on Twitter will know that 4 weeks ago we came home from a weekend away to discover that a neighbour was about to remove the tree on the right. I took these photos on consecutive days from my phone when I was feeling sad that the view might be about to change irrevocably. The scene decided to be particularly poignant in response.

The news had me in a bit of a panic that such a large, old tree was suddenly going to be chopped down. Why was it being removed – was there a good reason? Had it been given proper thought? Had the right advice and permissions been sought? What kind of precedence would this set for the other trees (another tree – I think an oak – had only just been razed to the ground a bit further down the road a few weeks previously)? What were the implications of its removal on the health of the adjacent oak, for wildlife and on the appearance of the area?

Trees and tree felling can be such a contentious and emotionally charged issue. Many people are probably quite happy for trees to be protected, as long as this doesn’t apply to ones in their own back garden. I don’t believe felling a tree is intrinsically a bad thing. It is not always to the detriment of the environment or character of a place. In some instances it is the sensible thing to do. It may be dead, dying, diseased or dangerous. Removing a tree could be part of a larger plan in the management of an environment or garden. I have worked in gardens where taking a tree out has been the right decision even though there may be consternation from visitors and residents in the area. But I do think a mature tree, that has been standing there for a longer time than your house, that supports wildlife and contributes to the personality of a place and has taken 80 years to reach this state deserves a bit of consideration and should not be destroyed in a single day under what may be groundless reasoning.

Today the tree is still standing. Just. It has survived two dates where tree surgeons have been booked to come and fell it.

The first date for the tree’s demise was averted when I went round at the eleventh hour to try to find out from my neighbour why it was being removed and whether they had sought permission from the council first (I myself had no idea whether it was protected or not and could not get through to anyone useful at the council at such a late hour – i.e. 4pm).

The next morning there was blissful silence. Chainsaws failed to appear. My questions had prompted them to postpone the chop.

I eventually got through to the tree officer at the council who came over to take a look. They made a decision to put a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) on it (the oak on the left was already covered by one). They could, of course, have decided it had no value and was not worthy of being saved. Then it was a matter of waiting for the TPO notice to come through.

The following week I had a voicemail from the neighbour to say a second date had been set for the tree to be felled. This was again thwarted when, the next day, notice arrived from the council of the proposed TPO.

The neighbour was less than happy. We had a 5-10 minute conversation on the phone during which she was ranty and irrational and then she hung up on me.

A few people have said that I was brave or I did the right thing. Some believe I should ‘mind my own business’ or not get involved. But the thing is, it is my business. It is the business of all of us. No, it’s not my tree and it is not on my property but it certainly does affect me, and my property come to that. We all have to live in this environment, and I want the environment we live in to be a green and healthy one. All I know is that I felt sick when I found out the tree was coming down. The reasoning for it to be destroyed did nothing to convince me. I would have felt much worse if I had sat back, said nothing and just watched as an 80+ year old tree, that may not have been causing any harm, was felled in a day.

If the tree is a danger to people or property then of course it has to go. I’m just glad that careful consideration plus sound and valid reasons must now be given first before this old tree can be permanently removed. Just a bit of thought. That is all I ask.

Some tips:

  • If there are any trees important to you in your garden or surrounding landscape and you think they may be under threat, check their TPO status early on – don’t wait until they may be chopped down.
  • Planting trees is a wonderful thing to do but please plant responsibly. If you are planting a tree in a small garden make sure its ultimate size and vigour is appropriate for the distance you are planning to site it from the house. I read somewhere (unfortunately I have forgotten where) that as a general rule you should plant your tree at least as far from the house as its eventual height will be. If you are unsure of what to plant then seek advice first.
  • Don’t move into a house with a large or potentially large tree in the garden if you don’t want to manage it or live with it. Check before you move in to a house whether any of the trees on your land are protected or if you are in a conservation area.
  • Be wary about removing a tree because you think it is causing a problem. Unless there is imminent danger from structural failure, hasty action could cause more extensive damage in the future. Seek independent advice from a qualified arborist as well as a building surveyor if you think your tree is causing a problem.
  • Before carrying out work on a tree check with your Local Planning Authority that the tree is not protected by a TPO or in a Conservation Area.


Guide to Tree Preservation Orders

Advice on trees near buildings from the RHS

The Tree Council

Forestry Commission


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