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Goodbye Big Smoke

December 4, 2013

The house is being packed around me. It feels more than a bit surreal.

For the last four years we have been living as far on the edge of London as is possible whilst still (technically) being within its greater boundaries. After over a decade as Londoners we are now officially moving out. Although we’ve had this period on the fringe, straddling city and country, it still feels like A Thing. We will be entering into the folds of Kent proper. I feel apprehensive (hell, who isn’t when they move right?) and excited (bring on the change!).

Things I am going to miss:

  • Being within a 10 minute walk (8 minutes to be precise!) of a station with direct trains into London town
  • Being able to walk to buy groceries
  • Having every and any type of food outlet on our doorstep
  • Our lovely neighbours, who are kind and nice and have a soft Welsh lilt, take enough of an interest but also keep to themselves
  • Our warm and sunny, south-west facing, suntrap of a patio
  • Sunset views from our upstairs windows
  • Our first garden
First garden

Our garden this summer

Things to look forward to:

  • More space
  • Long country walks
  • Many Sunday lunches in country pubs
  • Being surrounded by more trees and greenery and nature
  • Discovering a new area. We will be living in an AONB!
  • Frequenting local farmers markets
  • Maybe getting a dog (!). Watch this space…
  • Having a bigger garden to play with – wahooo!

Gardening & Yoga

October 30, 2013

Every so often you hear how gardening is good for your health. Sure this is probably true if you do a bit of gentle gardening, perhaps for a couple of hours in your spare time and otherwise lead a pretty sedentary lifestyle. Gardening means you become more active and get outdoors, which can only be good for you, right?

But if you do a LOT of gardening, or if you do it as a job – gardening for a whole working day, day after day – it can have a pretty wearing effect on your body.

Tree & phlomis

Chronic aches and pains, sore joints, knotted, tense and worn muscles are NO FUN. Unfortunately these are some of the less welcome side effects that can come with gardening. And boy do I know it. Gardening as a job is not all about flowers and tea breaks. It involves digging, planting, heaving, hoiking, lifting, pulling, pushing, raking, sawing. Many times a task can be heavy, intense and repetitive for the duration of time that it takes to complete – which can range from minutes to days. And let’s face it, most gardeners do not warm up or down before or after a big day’s work-out in the garden. I’m not complaining. I love gardening and it does make you feel great. But it also makes you ache.

This is where yoga comes in for me. No, it’s not just for hippies. It just makes a lot of sense. [I know some gardener-types can really poo-poo the idea. A head gardener I worked for once suggested introducing yoga in the garden for the gardeners. It went down like a lead balloon. I thought it was rather enlightened.] It is the perfect counterbalance to the heavy, jarring and grinding actions that impact on your body in gardening. It makes you listen to you body, helps you build strength and keeps your body supple, gently stretching out your muscles and limbs. Plus, I find it makes you feel great. Both in body and mind.

My first real encounter with yoga was in 2007 (or was it 8, I forget) when I treated myself to a one day Pranayama breathing workshop at the beautiful Haybarn Spa at Daylesford in Gloucestershire. The instructor we had was a serious yogi who did extreme things such as nose cleaning and swallowing cloth to cleanse his food pipe and stomach (well, that’s what he told us). Luckily we didn’t have to do any of this but he did take us through a few beginners’ yoga postures – the first I ever did.

A year or so later I started going to yoga classes at my old gym (the Canary Riverside branch of Virgin Active (an awesome gym with an infinity pool overlooking the Thames and fab spa facilities for post-class/work-out *sigh*). The best sessions were the ones taken by Heather Mason, who didn’t just go through the motions of each asana (or yoga pose) but also addressed breathing, spiritual and mental aspects too – teaching us to be ‘mindful’. It gave me the foundation to see yoga as being incredibly therapeutic and beautiful.

I think in that way, yoga and gardening make great bedfellows. They both make you feel more connected, peaceful and positive. They are also both meditative, nurturing and about finding balance. Well, that and yoga does a good job of helping me to get rid of the tension built up in my neck and shoulders and keeps me bendy!

Shiva Rea

These days being a gym member isn’t very cost-effective or convenient for me so I do my yoga at home. I got this DVD – Shiva Rea Daily Energy – about three years ago and I’ve just rediscovered it in the last few months. I’m a bit picky about my yoga instructors. They are not all the same! And I haven’t had one as good as Heather since I left my old city gym. But this DVD is great and I would highly recommend it. It’s very flexible – you can pick and mix the elements you want to make up your practice. The Water and Shanti practices are nice and mellow and I find particularly good for releasing tension. Plus, as each individual practice is fairly short it makes it easy to fit some yoga in to your day.

You might find it a little tricky if you have zero yoga experience. There aren’t any detailed instructions for the poses so a bit of knowledge is useful. She does also have a beginners DVD but I haven’t watched it so can’t say if it’s any good.

Good luck if you decide to give yoga a go. I can’t recommend it enough and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. If anything, it will hopefully help to keep our bodies in good shape and prolong our gardening lives a little longer!

Le Jardin de l’Alchimiste

October 3, 2013
0 Eygalieres

Eygalières on an overcast day. Situated on the edge of the Alpilles in Provence.

One of the gardens we visited this summer was Le Jardin de l’Alchimiste in Provence, just outside the pretty village of Eygalières.

It was created in the late ‘90s by Alain and Marie de Larouzière (owners of the Mas de la Brune next door, a 16th century mansion built by an alchemist) with the help of French garden designers Arnaud Maurières and Eric Ossart. The garden was interesting and felt quite unlike any I’ve visited before. It was split into three main sections. First, to enter the garden, you weave your way through a maze that spells out the Hebrew word ‘Berechit’ (from the start of the bible and meaning ‘In the beginning’). You then emerge into the ‘Magical Garden’ filled with plants that have magical, medicinal or healing properties according to local tradition. The final section is the ‘Alchemist Garden’ in which the visitor journeys through the ‘black work’, the ‘white work’ and the ‘red work’ (more on this later).

Although each of the three parts of the garden are situated right alongside the other you can’t see through into each one. Each part is enclosed and you don’t see the layout or what lies ahead in each section until you have entered. It had the clever effect of adding to a sense of discovery and made the whole garden seem much larger than the actual area it covered.

1 Maze

The constricted entrance via the maze emphasised the transition from the real world outside to the other world of the garden. It also served to disorientate.

Once inside, the symmetrically laid Magical Garden was peaceful and tranquil. It was a grey, overcast day and it had just stopped raining. We were alone. The place was damp and empty. Serene bliss.

2 Rill

A rill running down the length of the Magical Garden

3 Willow enclosures

Much of this garden was divided into squares of planting each featuring a plant with ‘magical’ characteristics. Many of these squares were enclosed by criss-crossing willows.

4 Vine arch

The garden was bisected down the middle by a vine arch planted with 22 different varieties

The third part, the Alchemist Garden, was really interesting. From the entrance into the ‘black work’ through a dark tunnel the path twisted back on itself several times taking you further into the garden and into another corridor. The turning of each corner unveiled a new surprise. It felt like an adventure.

5 Alchemist entrance

Dark tunnel entrance into the ‘black work’

6 Black pots

Round the first corner – an odd corridor of pots planted up with black petunias

7 Aeoniums

Round the next corner – a lovely surprise as we came upon a row of tall, black, Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’

9 Me and Aeoniums

Much taller than me (admittedly not that difficult!)

8 Aeonium close up

Got to love a black Aeonium

10 Last black section

A dark pool, surrounded by black slate in the last part of the ‘black works’

According to the interpretation, the three colours or works in the Alchemist Garden represent the three steps of the alchemist’s quest for the philosopher stone to transform lead into gold. It also echoes the stages of life on the metaphysical and spiritual path to ultimate knowledge:

– The black work evokes the birth of the child and his physical development – the time of basic intelligence.

– The white work heralds the time of intellectual and emotional development. Some people are quite happy here and will spend their whole life here.

– The red work is the stage for those who are more demanding, who want to travel the whole road and who will discover the meaning of life while progressing in the plenitude of spirituality.

Eventually, from the darkness of the black we were spat out into the white – dazzled and enveloped by a sea of ‘Iceberg’ roses, heavy and dripping with the earlier rain.  Over the tops of the flowers it was a mass of white as far as we could see. It was thrilling. And fun.

13 Entrance to white

Compressed exit from the black work out into the white. Even the colour of the flooring transitions.

14 First sight white

Entering the ‘white work’

15 Field of roses

Masses of white Rosa ‘Iceberg’. I’ve never been in a garden like it. Being here at the beginning of June was fortuitous as the roses looked great.

16 Me and roses

Where’s Wally version. Holding up my umbrella to make it easy!

17 Rose & miscanthus

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’ lining the path

18 Gaura underplanting

Underplanting of Gaura

19 White water feature

Water feature in the middle of the ‘white work’

I found the last section, the ‘red’ or ‘great work’, less aesthetically pleasing than the black and white sections but still interesting nonetheless. It just didn’t sit as comfortably, but perhaps that is what comes from a garden full of red. It isn’t exactly the most calming of colours.

20 Entrance to red

A circular entrance into ‘red work’

21 Red garden 1

Red Rosa ‘Prestige de Bellegarde’ and pomegranate trees dominated this section

24 Red water feature

At the centre was a 6-pointed star water feature – the end of the quest – with the fountain symbolising the Philosopher’s Stone. 33 segments radiated out on the paving of the surrounding circle symbolising universality.

It was interesting to visit such a purposefully designed garden, full of symbolism and meaning. It had a story to tell and took the visitor on a journey. Well worth a visit if you ever happen to pass by on holiday. And we didn’t see another soul during our visit there. Just as I like it.

End of summer

October 2, 2013

I’ve been absent from this blog in body and mind. For some reason I haven’t really felt like writing on here. Not for a lack of things going on. But I often find summers as such. There’s too much fun to be had in the Real World and too much going on to spend time in the virtual one. Especially given the summer we’ve just had. Wowee, what a glorious one it was! I spent quite a few hours in my garden and I hope you did too.

Talking of the garden, there’s a chance that we might be moving soon. It is a planned thing. Something we sort of decided before we moved here. It has meant that I’ve always had an odd relationship with and a slight detachment from our current garden. On the one hand wanting to have fun and make my mark on it (read: carry out my every horticultural whim); but tempered on the other knowing that it wasn’t ‘forever’ and that we might move in the not-too-distant future (read: not sinking a fortune in it and not frightening off any prospective buyers).

But things can’t stand still because of what might or might not happen and this summer I’ve most enjoyed the new dahlias I planted in a couple of my raised beds earlier this spring, purposefully for cutting. After visiting Great Dixter last autumn I was determined to grow some. It’s been wonderful bringing the assorted colourful blooms indoors. So cheering.

Jug of dahlias

The cultivars I selected were: D. ‘New Baby’, ‘City of Leiden’, ‘Bishop of Auckland’, ‘Chat Noir’, ‘Rip City’ (tubers which I ordered and paid for from Sarah Raven), ‘Fascination’ and ‘Honka’ (potted tubers given to me courtesy of Plantify). I planted all of them in situ as soon as I received them back in early April, chucked a thick layer of mulch over them and crossed my fingers. Foliage started appearing around the end of June/beginning of July with flowers towards the end of summer.

Both ‘Honka’

Dahlia Honka

Pale yellow stars of Dahlia Honka

…and ‘New Baby’…

Dahlia New Baby

Neat, little balls of Dahlia ‘New Baby’. A gorgeous orange.

…have stood out in performance. They have flowered well and the blooms are of a lovely form and colour.  They also have nice, long stalks for cutting. Sadly two of the tubers I received (‘Rip City’ and ‘Chat Noir’) didn’t produce anything – had by frost perhaps? Whilst ‘Jowey Mirella’ came out looking like this…

Dahlia unknown

Unknown dahlia. Should have been ‘Jowey Mirella’!

…So I didn’t really end up with any of the deep, black-red flowers I was after. ‘Bishop of Auckland’ did appear but the blooms have been sparse and the plant has seemed very slow to get going. Unsurprisingly, the potted tubers I received from Plantify were quicker off the blocks initially than the bare tubers from Sarah Raven, but most of them pretty much caught up eventually.

The other thing that’s been a big hit in the garden this summer has been Acidanthera murielae (or Gladiolus murielae). I planted the corms up in a big terracotta pot on the patio in April. The first beautiful white blooms appeared in July and it flowered on long, arching spikes throughout the rest of the summer. The large, strap shaped leaves looked gorgeous too catching the evening light. Two thumbs up.

Acidanthera murielae

Acidanthera murielae

Bluebells at Emmetts

May 25, 2013

This weekend we hot-footed it to Emmetts Garden to take in the bluebells that are out now. I’ve been itching to catch them for the past two weeks but this was the first chance we’ve had. I think we may have been a little late to see them in their prime but they were still a gorgeous vision. That fuzz of blue spreading out under the dappled light of the burgeoning tree canopy. Such a joyous sight.

Bluebells 1

Tricky to capture in a photograph. They just seem to recede the closer you get!

Bluebells 2

Bluebells at Emmets

Emmetts is a National Trust garden that is well known for its bluebell display, but there are plenty of other places you can see them too. The Woodland Trust have a handy search for bluebell woods here – just type in your postcode.

On this visit to Emmetts the Davidia was also in flower. The ‘flowers’ are actually a pair of showy, white bracts which surround a dense cluster of actual flowers in the centre. The bracts give the impression of a flight of doves or white pocket-handkerchiefs, hence its common names of dove tree, ghost tree and pocket handkerchief tree. It can take up to 20 years for a tree to flower well!

photo 4

Branches laden with the handkerchief-like flowers

photo 2

I love this Instagram pic – it looks like wallpaper, or a painting!

photo 3

The distinctly conical shape of a Davidia

I also loved this meadow, or field, dotted with pink and purple tulips too – quite an unusual way of planting them I thought. So pretty and effective.

Tulips 1

And we admired the spectacular views over the rolling Kent countryside.

Kent country

Chelsea Flower Show 2013

May 22, 2013

You may have noticed that it’s Chelsea Flower Show this week. I was there on Monday for press day. Chelsea is still an event in the horticultural calendar that I look forward to. Even if it is a bit of a circus and even if it does start to feel a bit same-y each year. It is what it is – artificial, a bit corporate and something of a media frenzy – but if it gets more people interested in gardening and plants then that’s fine by me. It’s also the best – or at least the most prestigious and visible – showcase we have in this country for garden design. Plus it’s a good excuse for a jolly and a catch-up for horticultural folk.

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was a stand-out show this year. Disappointing given it’s the show’s centenary. I expected a bit more pizazz. Garden gnomes just don’t cut it.

My favourite garden was Christopher Bradley-Hole’s design for the Daily Telegraph. It’s the one that most captured my attention and gave me the most viewing pleasure. Beautifully executed, it was stunning, striking, peaceful. It spoke to me and made me stop and stare. Not that I would want this garden for myself – what a bitch all those cubes of box and yew would be to trim. But it’s the kind of thing I like to see when I come to Chelsea and I like the idea behind it.

Bradley-Hole Garden

Daily Telegraph Garden

I also enjoyed the East Village garden by Balston Agius for being a bit different from your usual Chelsea designs with its sinuous lines, bold planting and angular viewing platforms that jutted out into the garden.

East Village Garden

East Village Garden

I thought two gardens were let down by the hard landscaping elements. Sadly the Sentebale garden didn’t appeal to me at all. The planting at the side, along the wall, was pretty but the hard landscaping was too much – far too dominating and out of proportion to the garden – and I didn’t like the material used. The polished grey stepping stones and expanse of grey steps up to the grey round house left me a bit cold.

Sentebale Garden

Sentebale Garden

Chris Beardshaw’s garden had some gorgeous planting but the path down the centre didn’t work for me – it was ugly and distracting.

Beardshaw Garden

Arthritis Research Garden (Chris Beardshaw)

The garden looked much prettier viewed from the side (bar the unsightly barrier tape keeping people off the plants).

Beardshaw Garden 2

The other things that I enjoyed were the artisan retreats, which returned for a second year. No doubt they appeal to me because I hanker after a garden studio of my own, plus they’re situated in a nice quiet spot. This one housed a Japanese-style dye workshop. The clothes inside were made by students from the London College of Fashion and dyed using natural plant dyes. So pretty.

Colour Field Retreat

London College of Fashion’s Artisan Retreat

Rob Ryan Retreat

Rob Ryan’s Artisan Retreat

In the pavilion I was completely captivated by this display of an entire 30-year old apple tree, roots and all, that had been dug up from an orchard by East Malling Research. Utterly beautiful and displayed to great effect.

EMR Tree

East Malling Research

If you’re going this week then have a great time. If not, there’s always the Chelsea Fringe – back for its second year there’s a host of garden-inspired events (many of them free!) happening all around London until the 9th June.


April 4, 2013

I’ve wanted to visit Stourhead ever since one of my lecturers talked about it as an example of a landscape garden when I was studying at Writtle. Stourhead was modelled on the idealised landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin – such gardens came to be known as ‘picturesque’ (other examples include the gardens at Stowe and Painshill – though I enjoyed Stourhead better than both). I wanted to walk around that lake; take in the carefully composed views of the classical temples and Gothic buildings that dot the route; see the historical and political references that garden-makers so liked to include back then. That was almost nine years ago now. So on our way back to London after our Easter in Cornwall we decided to stop there to break up the trek home. I’ve seen so many pictures of this garden and have wanted to visit for so long it can be hard for a place to live up to high expectations. But this garden most definitely did. It was impressive without feeling overly imposing – welcoming and perfect for strolling around as it was designed to be. A new and tantalising view opened up at every turn. It was picture-perfect, tranquil and very romantic. Henry Hoare II, who inherited the house and land from his father, created the garden from the 1740s. It’s situated in a beautiful location – where two steep valleys meet and where a natural spring called Paradise Well comes up (an apt name!). The large lake, around which the walk is designed, was created by damming the stream at the end of the valley.

Stourhead 1

Excitement! First glimpse of the Temple of Apollo as we walked into the garden from the upper entrance

Stourhead 2

Wider view across the valley

Stourhead 4

The Temple of Flora, dedicated to the Roman goddess of flowers and spring (we could do with her working some magic right now don’t you think?), was the first garden building erected in 1744-6.

Stourhead 3

View of the Pantheon across the lake through the doors of the Temple of Flora

Stourhead 10

The Grotto (or Temple of the Nymph), a popular feature in such gardens. Inside the walls and domed ceiling are lined with limestone and tufa.

Stourhead 11

By the exit is a statue of a river god.

Stourhead 12

The Gothic Cottage. They were selling tea inside so we stopped for a warming cup. It was so cold and so quiet I think they were thinking of closing up.

Stourhead 13a

The Pantheon. Inspired by the one in Rome this is the largest of the garden buildings. Inside were a series of rather impressive statues standing in niches in the curved walls including one of Hercules and one of Diana, the goddess of hunting.

Stourhead 15

The Temple of Apollo approached from the Rock Arch (not pictured). My favourite of the garden buildings it stands up on a hill and is dedicated to the sun god.

Stourhead 16

View back down to the Pantheon

Stourhead 18

Temple of Apollo. You might recognise this view from Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. It’s where Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy tells Keira Knightley’s Lizzie that he loves her; and she tells him that he’s offensive. Apparently there are many fans that want to re-enact the scene here. The spot also sees a fair few proposals and they do weddings here too. It is a gorgeous view of the garden from up here.

Stourhead 17

No, we didn’t do a re-enactment. But I did get hubs to take my picture with The view!

Stourhead 19

The end of the walk. The decorative Palladian Bridge in the foreground with the Pantheon in the distance and the Gothic Cottage just visible on the far right of the lake. You can see the sky is just turning blue. About 15 minutes after we left the garden it was glorious sunshine, dammit!

If you want to visit the garden it is possible to stay right by the garden entrance, literally a stone’s throw from the view above – either at the Spread Eagle Inn or in the National Trust holiday cottage opposite. The Stourhead estate covers 2,650 acres so there is no shortage of long walks to keep you busy!