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London 2012

August 1, 2012

I always love it when the Olympics come around. The earliest one I can remember watching and following on TV was Seoul in 1988, willing the likes of athletes including Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Liz McColgan to go faster. I get completely swept along in the celebration of human endeavour and with all these nations and the world uniting in sport. It is inspiring and uplifting. With 2012 being our local Games and practically taking place in our back yard, Olympic fever is at an all time high in our household. I feel completely proud to be British and supporting all our amazing athletes in Team GB. Bah humbug to all the cynics and moaners.

So far I’ve been to see the rowing at Eton Dorney and to the Olympic Park in Stratford twice – once to see the women’s hockey and yesterday for the swimming. The organisation has been good. The fans have been great – the atmosphere has been amazing and as you’d expect the support for team GB from the stands has been immense.

Today is going to be a big one for Team GB. I’ll be watching the TV for the rowing finals later this morning, Wiggins cycling the time trial and our two GB boys swimming the men’s 200m breast stroke final later this evening. Go GB GO!

Some photos from the last few days (ones of the landscaping and planting in the Olympic Park to follow in a separate post).

Downderry Lavender Nursery

July 4, 2012

This is our third summer living on the London/Kent border. It’s been great having the best of both worlds – an easy half hour train ride that takes us smack bang into the middle of the big smoke or a roll down the hill into the glorious, green countryside of the Garden of England. The more we explore and get to know Kent the more we fall in love with the county. From the undulating High Weald and the Kent Downs, ancient woodlands to the arable land of east Kent, dramatic cliffs on the coast around Dover to the bleak beauty of Dungeness and Romney Marsh, it is varied and truly beautiful. There is much for us to discover and we are doing so bit by bit. Last weekend I went to visit yet another picturesque corner in search of lavender.

This is the time of year for lavender. It’s looking great right now, that gorgeous-smelling, beautiful, useful herb. Last year I went to see fields of it at Castle Farm in Shoreham. This time I trundled down the road a bit further to Downderry Nursery, which holds a Scientific National Plant Collection of Lavender. This is not the place to come to see fields upon fields of lavender. But what they do have is the most diverse collection of lavenders in the world. Down some beautiful, quiet, winding country lanes (with some great views over the surrounding countryside), not far from Hadlow, I arrived at the sun-baked walled garden that is home to the nursery.

The garden is stuffed full of different lavenders growing in the ground but what I particularly liked were the demonstration trial beds, which showed the effects of planting distances, pruning times, mulch types, the addition of grit and different feeds. The hedges looked best at closer spacings – giving a larger, fuller hedge – but I suppose it depends on the effect you are after. Pruning immediately after flowering from early September produced the healthiest, bushier-looking shrubs. Unsurprisingly grit mulch worked the best, as did grit added to the soil (50kg per square metre). The plants by far preferred having no feed – and definitely were not liking manure added on planting!

Trial beds testing pruning times, mulching, drainage and feeding

Demonstrating planting distances for a lavender hedge – pictured here at 23cm spacing on the left and 30cm spacing on the right.

Looking out over the walled garden. You can see many varieties of lavender planted at Downderry Nursery.

The beautiful flower of Lavandula canariensis subsp. canariensis. Native to the Canary Islands – we grew this at Chelsea Physic Garden when I worked there. It’s tender so best grown in a pot and brought under cover in winter. The foliage is bright green and finely dissected.

Lavender basket. Designed by Simon Charlesworth and made by underwoodsman John Waller in just 6 hours! Made to the same design as their award-winning 2005 Hampton Court Flower Show exhibit.

Even the garden furniture had lavender in it – dried lavender suspended in plastic table and chairs.

Even with all these types of lavender on display, I think ‘Hidcote’ remains my favourite. Popular as it is, I don’t care. Deep, rich purple flowers, nicely compact shape, sweet scent, grey-green foliage. Gorgeous.

There were some roses trained against the back wall of the garden. This one, ‘The Generous Gardener’ is worth a mention as it was looking and smelling divine:

Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’

Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’. Had a really wonderful scent and a gorgeous soft pink colour. It was looking really strong, healthy and abundant growing on the wall here.

Downderry are leading lavender experts and this is a great place to come for choice and advice. This small family company propagates over 95% of the plants they sell and guarantee their lavenders are true to type. It’s worth buying lavender cultivars (for example, my favourite cultivar ‘Hidcote’) from reputable people such as this because plants raised from seed are often variable.

Downderry are open Tuesday-Sunday and bank holidays from May to September. See their website for more details and for plants sold online.

They can also usually be found at Hampton Court Flower Show and this year is no exception. They won Gold and Best Exhibit in the Floral Marquee – many congratulations to them!

Driving down country lanes

Kent oast houses

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.