19 Apr 2018

New for 2018: The Ascot Spring Garden Show

I nearly didn't go. The weather has been so poor recently that I found myself questioning the sanity of anyone staging a garden show in mid April. At the eleventh hour though, my own sanity prevailed and I contacted the organisers for a pass which they produced with lightning speed.

And that was the first thing that struck me - this inaugural show seemed very organised and efficiently run; well thought out, attention to detail, appealing and entertaining.  It was an excellent start for a new show. The show's organisers have correctly gauged what the public wants (imho ๐Ÿ˜Œ) - space, choice, inspiration, advice, food, plants and seating. The show was created because of a gap in Ascot Racecourse's spring calendar and steered to success by Stephen Bennett, previously Show Director for the RHS.

~ My two favourite gardens: Top, On Point by Tom Hill; Below, The Courtyard by Joe Perkins

So, what's on offer at the show?  The big draw had to be the twelve show gardens, six by professional designers and six by hort college teams under the Young Gardeners of the Year competition. I'm sure in future years there will be more but, for this inaugural show, these were just enough to drink in all the detail. It was lovely to see how vibrant a spring garden could be and especially nice to see magnolias and cherry blossom being used in the designs - something not possible for summer shows.

Then there was retail therapy. There were 33 specialist plant nurseries at the show, plus 58 trade stands selling all sorts of garden related ephemera such as tools, shoes, garden sculptures, landscaping, furniture and the most divine and highly desirable greenhouses.  I think I may have stroked one or two of them while no-one was looking. The plant nurseries were especially popular as mid-spring is the perfect time to be thinking about what to do in your own garden - and filling any gaps for next year's spring garden before those thoughts are replaced by summer.

~ Love this display! What a good idea, displaying pots of spring bulbs in wine boxes.
Especially if you get to drink the wine first ... ~

TV gardener, David Domoney, led a programme of talks in the theatre throughout all three days of the show; I rather regret not catching his talk on Unusual Gardening Techniques, held the day after I was there.  From the Show Guide:
'From feeding plants with nails, caring for plants with vodka, Viagra, or making bumble bee nests with hosepipe, cotton wool and a pot, to how to gain items to garden for free from self-service restaurants, flight bags, pubs, and even  Ikea! It's a humorous, pen grabbing talk (underpinned with science) which makes best use of gardening practices, recyling, money saving and the resourcefulness of a gardener.' 
Vodka? Viagra? Flight bags? The mind boggles. You can see why I might be curious.  There were also talks from Pippa Greenwood (Grow Gorgeous Vegetables), floristry demonstrations from celebrity florist Simon Lycett and 'Plants for a Spring Garden' from the Keeper of the Garden at Windsor Great Park and his assistant. In addition, there was a giant screen overlooking the concourse (presumably in situ for the horse racing punters) so I was able to catch snippets of interviews taking place around the show and, I think, possibly some of the talks.

The show makes for a pleasant and leisurely day out. It's not so large that you can't fit it all in, and not overcrowded either, with wide aisles between the trade stands, a plant crรจche, plenty of food outlets ranging from a quick bite to something more substantial and even somewhere nice to sit with tables and chairs set out by the bandstand.  Bandstand?  Yes, indeed. A backdrop of music jollied things along but was never intrusive. At one point the English spring was lifted by the sounds of a Caribbean steel band gently transporting visitors to warmer climes.  To make the day really special, posh, proper, Afternoon Tea was available with sandwiches, scones, little pastries and a glass of champagne if wanted, a cuppa if not. At a price, of course, but definitely worth getting your frock and hat on for. (I didn't stop for tea but will bear it in mind for next year!)

As I was there in my blogger guise, I was given a Show Guide booklet as part of the press pack. As a nice surprise this was packed with useful and relevant information, with adverts kept to a minimum, and represented good value for the £2 cover charge.

Altogether, I came away from the show happy and relaxed, feeling I'd chatted to some interesting people, been inspired by the variety of spring planting used in the show gardens ... and, of course, with a boot full of plants. Really, an excellent day.

The show is hosted by Ascot Racecourse in association with the Gardens of Windsor Great Park. There's easy access through the Berkshire countryside from three motorways (M3, M4 and M25), plentiful free parking and a (very) local railway station.   Next year's show is 12-14th April 2019.

14 Apr 2018

Six on Saturday: In a very happy place

The past week seems to have sped past, and this morning I'm definitely in my happy place having woken up to clear blue skies. Those have now turned to the promised 'light cloud' - weatherspeak for grey with a hint of occasional sun - but it's dry, bright, and I have a free day ahead - perfect! Six things that have contributed to happiness this week ...

~ looks very crowded at ground level but I can see lots of gaps for annuals from above ๐Ÿ˜Š ~
1- On Monday the scaffolding surrounding my block of flats started to be taken down. The white safety netting had clouded my view for the past five+ months while the roof was retiled. Day one revealed the sky and let light onto my balcony and by Tuesday I could see out again. By Wednesday, the middle garden came into view fully for the first time since November and I could get a clearer idea of what needs doing. Bizarrely, I've been feeling rather exposed without the netting; funny how we get used to things.

2- The avocado stone which was planted during a workshop 'How to successfully grow an avocado' in October last year, finally cracked and started growing four weeks ago - only five months of patience required and, actually, pretty thrilling. This past week four leaves have unfurled from a sturdy stem. I am vindicated and a good houseplant grower at last.

~ Here's a few I made earlier ... ~
3- I have discovered a new and surprisingly soothing pastime - making paper pots while watching tv. I usually catch up with a few crime dramas (my fave) on the weekend but single tasking doesn't suit me so I got out the new paper pot maker and soon had rather a lot of empty vessels for my seed sowing. What joy!

4- Part of the ongoing renovations here include making good and repainting the concrete areas of my balcony. So the crumbling built in windowbox has been emptied of soil, repaired and repainted in bright white, and consequently made a disgrace of my efforts at painting the rest of the brickwork a few years back. Cue: kind painters to the rescue with a large water bottle filled with free paint.  I've cleared the tiny balcony so I'll repaint it today and will then put up lots of shelves for container salad and herbs. Expect a Show and Tell when it's done!

5- Yesterday I went to the new Ascot Spring Garden Show, held at the racecourse in Berkshire. That in itself gave me a very good reason to be happy, but as there were so many excellent nurseries there, it would have been silly not to take a look, wouldn't it?  This morning I've spent a happy five minutes potting up the three tiny succulents that leapt into my basket yesterday.  Don't they look lovely? They were bought for my son to fill his empty Bonsai dish but I can feel myself getting rather fond of them.

6- Also highly related to yesterday's garden show, sitting downstairs in the garden are two trays of herbs, a white peony, a variegated eryngium and variegated leaf iris waiting to be planted today. Just writing that list makes my heart flutter - not, I hasten to add, because of the ££ spent but I'm just thinking of the loveliness to come. Pay it Forward happiness, for sure.

Linking to #SixonSaturday hosted by The Propagator blog. Six garden related happenings posted on a Saturday for a bit of fun. Hop over to find a few more Sixes and maybe to join in!

11 Apr 2018

Book(let) Review: Ten Poems about Sheds (Instead of a card)

Poems about sheds? What's not to love!

But at the risk of sounding like a complete Philistine, I admit that I've always preferred prose to poems.  I like to get stuck into the narrative and subtleties of a good book and all but a handful of poems leave me either baffled or indifferent. A Romantic, I am not.

So when Candlestick Press asked recently if I would like to review their latest publication 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I was initially reluctant but I took a look anyway.  The title alone is enough to pique the interest of any gardener - don't we all have a bit of a thing about sheds?

Having found my way to their website, I discovered booklets with beautifully illustrated covers on a range of subjects - most, not all, are poetry anthologies.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened my copy of 'Ten Poems about Sheds'; probably a few lighthearted, jolly poems. I know I imagined shades of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear. Instead I found a collection of thoughtful, evocative, free verse poems.

Let me quote from the back cover:
"A shed may be just a place to keep the lawnmower, or it may be somewhere to escape to in order to write or paint. Sometimes it's a haven in which to daydream when the house is full of noise and bustle [...] These enchanting poems will lead you quietly into private worlds where you'll find you're entirely at home."
For me, the word 'shed' takes me back to my grandpa's garden where I can still see the black shed where he stored and maintained his tools. I'm not sure I was allowed inside, perhaps just a peek from the doorway to watch him work, but I remember the smells of creosote, linseed oil, wood and earth. Heady stuff for a small girl keen on digging. I thought it a magical curious place.

And that's the power I found in these poems, each one evoked a different memory or train of thought and I found myself lingering over the words.  Isn't that what a card or letter should do?

Because that's the brilliant thing about these booklets - they're designed to be sent instead of a card. While I love to get birthday or christmas cards, I've always regretted the waste; they're usually not something you'd want to keep forever, and I prefer things to have more longevity. No, cards are heartwarming to receive but inevitably - and regrettably - soon recycled.

But this booklet (and others in the range) is something to be savoured; to find a moment, perhaps over morning coffee, to sit and read at leisure - and then to tuck away to read again later. The titles drew me in - 'To the Shipbuilder, his Tabernacle', 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', or simply 'The Shed':

"Step in it's a tardis: vortex of smells
distilled a century - of pre-war
timber, earth-floor, and the gold decay
of sawdust, linseed, two-stroke oil ..."
(The first verse of 'The Shed' by Stuart Henson)

The A5 sized booklets have a quality feel, being printed on smooth, matte, white paper with a heavier card cover.  They're packaged in a cellophane wrap with a sturdy envelope plus a very handy bookmark with space for a personal message.  Each card is £4.95 plus postage, not a huge amount more than the cost of an average greetings card and yet offering so much more.

Although I was asked to review 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I couldn't resist taking a look at a couple of the other booklets.  Having read them, I've been drawn back to re-read them many times.

Ten Poems of Kindness: The back cover explains: "A simple and almost old-fashioned word, kindness is an underestimated virtue in our increasingly hectic and impersonal world. These generous poems remind us that kindness can take many forms and doesn't have to be time-consuming or complicated." The book includes an open letter from the mother of Felix Alexander, the 17 year old boy who took his life in 2016 after years of cyber-bullying. In the letter she exhorts people to "be kind always". The introduction is written by poet Jackie Kay who writes, "Being kind allows you to see the sunlight through the leaves."  I'll happily promote anything that inspires people to be more kind to each other.

In his introduction to Ten Poems about Gardens, Monty Don writes "These are all fine poems, all perfectly practical celebrations of why and how to garden. Read them with soil under your nails and to cultivate all that grows within. Read them and go out and garden the better for it."  There's a fabulous poem about allotments in this selection that made me smile, as well as an ode to the passions that Sissinghurst has seen and another, Vespers, that starts, "I don't wonder where you are any more; you're in the garden ..." That should strike a chord with more than a few folk I know!

But my absolute favourite (so far, hah!) has to be the story of The Wood in Winter; the phrasing is hauntingly beautiful and I love the cover. The author is John Lewis-Stempel, an award winning nature writer. The back cover introduces us: 'He writes about why being in a wood in winter strips us to our essential soul, and how close encounters with the animals who thrive in this hard season remind us of our own deep connection to the earth.'  I particularly enjoyed the narrator's encounter with a fox in the snow: "... the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive. The red fox."  Or birds: "Some rooks flew overhead; not the usual ragged, weary flight to roost, but an oaring deep and strong with their wings."  An oaring ... exquisite.

~ Wonderful woodcut illustrations add to the story of The Wood in Winter ~

Without becoming too evangelical, I hope I've inspired a few readers to take a wander over to the Candlestick Press website. They're a small Nottingham based company who print and publish in the UK and it would be a great shame not to be made aware of their titles. I think the booklets make perfect gifts and there's something for everyone - whether it's knitting, bicycles, chickens, clouds, telephones, tea, cricket, cats, dogs, puddings or relatives ... and much more! I'm tempted by a couple of the Christmas volumes; I like the look of 'The Christmas Wren' (also in Welsh) and 'The Gift of the Old One'.

New anthologies coming out this year include poems about Picnics, Rivers and Walking, among others.

Candlestick Press and their range of 'Instead of a Card' poetry pamphlets, can be found here.
Poetry pamphlets are stocked at over 300 UK card and book shops, including some branches of Waterstones, Blackwell's, Amazon and, best of all, probably your local book shop.
They can also be ordered online via the Candlestick website, postage is £1.25 for up to 2 booklets, or £1.65 for 3-4 booklets. Postage is by 1st class Royal Mail for speedy delivery.

My appreciative thanks to Candlestick Press for the review copies.

4 Apr 2018

The Real End of Month View for March, in April

At the weekend I wrote about spring flowers that are currently blooming around and in the veg patch but didn't look at the wider view of what else is happening. It's easier to focus in on the detail when skies are grey!  So, for a proper end of month view, I took another wander around the various little patches that I manage here - the veg patch, the shady border, the washing line border and the middle garden. (Yes, my patch has spread outwards over the years!)

The Veg Patch

Urban Veg Patch - Urban food garden
~ After the tidy up ~
Urban Veg Patch - fruit and veg in early spring
~ Spring growth - rhubarb and ransoms, tulips and fruit buds ~
Spring weather has been challenging for us gardeners - a bit of in/out, in/out, but don't shake it all about (seeds, that is!).  I resisted the urge to sow during March - mainly because my balcony is off limits at the moment, and it's too dark inside for seedlings. That worked in my favour as the weather was brutal at times. I risked sowing a few broad beans and sweet peas back in January. The broad bean plants have been sitting in the veg patch for a week now waiting for me to plant them during a break in the rain (and not being distracted by other jobs) while the sweet peas grow ever taller on my balcony in the shade of the scaffolding boards above.

Things were a bit more clement by the end of March so raised beds were weeded, cleared and prepared for sowing. Garlic, spinach, onions and carrots are in. Broad beans will be planted next (after the compost bin is emptied) and peas sown. The pear and quince trees are about to unfurl their leaves, way ahead of the other fruits. Scented geraniums killed by bad weather have been chopped back ready for removal; a huge patch of spreading golden oregano has been dug out to clear a space for rhubarb. The quince has been pruned for airflow. My plan this year is to return the veg patch to a food growing space but first I have to decide what to do with the perennials and bulbs growing there. I'm not one for bare soil so those plants earn their keep in spring. But I need to borrow the space back for beans and beetroot over the summer. Thinking cap on.

The Shade Border

Urbanvegpatch - Plants for a shady border
~ Shade border - Anemones flowering at last! Plus ferns work well in shade ~
The Shady Border sits at the northern end of the veg patch gardens and is named for the permanent summer gloom cast by two very tall Viburnum x bodnantense and a climbing rose with nowhere to climb. For the past year, this border has also had light stolen by a shipping container parked a couple of metres in front of it, part of ongoing building works. I've been walking past this 4 metre long border all winter thinking that I'd dig out anything worthwhile and abandon it to its fate as a cat toilet and litter magnet. But it's beginning to shrug off the building debris, and put on its spring finery to win my heart over again. The jury is out while I think what to plant for the summer months in this area of dry shade; succession planting needs to be addressed.

Taking my cue from the Viburnums and rose, the planting was predominantly pink toned or white.  Purple and pink Heucheras were soon joined by a pink Aquilegia (Granny's Bonnet), tulips, Dicentra formosa (the short white one), Anemone blanda, white Astrantia (Hattie's pincushion) and Pulmonaria. A previous planting of muscari soon showed up and I threw colour schemes to the winds with some mini daffodils and large ferns to fill the back of the border. The rather too successful ground cover is provided by Anthriscus sylvestris  (Black cow parsley) and Galium Odoratum (Sweet Woodruff), one plant of each popped into the border several years ago.

The Washing Line Border

(aka The Drought Border)
UrbanVegPatch - Plants in the hot dry border
~ Front view of the 'Washing Line Border; will look better when the alliums flower~

~ More subtle viewed from the pavement below the wall. ~

This border sits at the opposite (southern) end of the gardens and is opposite in aspect to the Shade Border; it gets lots of bright light and sun - but no water - so I've used plants that can withstand drought here. It's looking very lime-yellow at the moment, toning in with the foam tubing around the scaffolding. Humpf. Bad weather has killed off the softer elements leaving the Euphorbia and flax to dominate the colour.  This much acid yellow needs to be tempered with something; maybe a few tulips might brighten things up next year. At the moment, I really don't like it but there are some elements still in favour - bronze sedum heads, bronze Carex and blonde Stipa and Panicum grasses not yet chopped back, the Euphorbia against the blue-green of the Juniper.  The front needs some attention though. Purple alliums, Irises (Edith Wolford) and mauve Erysimum will soon take the edge off the lime green but, on the whole, everything needs a bit of a tweak.

The Middle Garden

 ~ Just a few of the plants in pots, in waiting ... ~
I'm ashamed to admit that this is still a work in progress. I've changed my mind about the layout several times in the last year with the result that very little got planted; in fact, the reverse was true for a huge kniphofia that I removed. Last spring I wanted a large sitting area in the middle. Then preferred the idea of a large circle of herbs with random walkways through flowers; pretty but impractical. Now I'm in favour of four large beds, mostly herbs, with a plus-sign path inbetween, surrounded by perennial, and some annual, flowers. Basically I just need to get on with it.

It's helpful to write all this down as there's a lot to finish in all the gardens; I hope there will be some progress to show by the end of the month!

By the way - Looking back at photos of the garden this time last year, pear blossom was in full froth, all tulips had been in flower for a couple of weeks, the gooseberry bush had leaves and flowers, same with the honeyberry bushes. Winter has definitely delayed spring here in the south by several weeks.

Linking to
1- Through the Garden Gate at Sarah's 'Down by the Sea' blog
2- End of Month View at Helen's 'The Patient Gardener' blog

1 Apr 2018

Six on Saturday: End of March in the garden

Goodness isn't weather fickle! Was that typical for March? It seemed winter would never end. We never know what the weather's going to do from one year to the next and this past month garden plants must have wondered whether winter was coming or going. Here in the UK, we've had snow, we've had sun, we've had rain, chill winds and then we've had more sun, and now to round off the month, it seems we're in for a week of rain. And I've got a hedge to plant. A new waterproof gardening coat has been ordered.

Despite the weather, there are several #sixonsaturday things happening in the garden today:

6 plants flowering now, showing that spring is well under way:

UrbanVegPatch: first tulip flower end of March

1. Tulips - yes really! starting to open in March. A big shout out to Morrison's supermarket for these as this is the third spring they've flowered. Planted into a raised bed with nothing-fancy multi-purpose compost. Five minutes to plant the bulbs, no maintenance, big return on the floral front but I don't pick them. I think they cost me £3 for 50 bulbs; a bargain. Look out for the bulbs from August onwards.

2. Forget-me-nots - the gift that keeps on giving.  I had a few plants from a friend's garden the year before last as they look so pretty in spring. Oh boy. Who knew they could self seed so far and wide! I still think they brighten up the early months but am confused. Some have opened pink; surely they should all be blue, or will they turn colour? Anyone?

3. Pulmonaria.  More commonly known as Lungwort due to its spotty leaves. Such an unattractive name for a beautiful little plant.  Also known as Soldiers and Sailors or Spotted Dog. I thought that was a pudding ... no, that's Spotted Dick. I digress. The buds have threatened to flower for weeks and have finally started to open. Hurrah!

4. Daffodils - yellow daffs have been going strong for weeks through snow and ice but the white ones, my favourites, have only just opened. I have no idea of the exact name as, again, these were Morrison's specials, £3 for 50 mixed white bulbs. The white tulips are lovely but I've been digging up the tiny alliums ever since.

5. Violets. I pictured a bank of wild thyme, oxlips, nodding violets, woodbine and eglantine - a throwback to studying Shakespeare at school. The reality is a few solitary flowers that become slug fodder every spring. They're seeding themselves around though so I'll pot a few up for the middle garden where I'm about to plant some eglantine (Sweet Briar Rose) and the woodbine (honeysuckle) is constantly striving for garden domination but forgiven for its lovely scent.

6. Primulas.  These were the first 'wildflowers' I planted in the veg patch for early colour and early food for bees. They're still my favourites. I have cowslips (Primula veris), primroses (Primula vulgaris), drumstick primroses (Primula denticulata) and all reliably flower throughout March and beyond, being some of the earliest spring flowers. As oxlips are only found growing in ancient woodland, and often mistaken for cowslips, I think I'm there on that one.

(A bonus to the list - the wood anemones and muscari have also flowered this weekend. So 8 plants, but why spoil a good meme!)

6 jobs completed in March:

1 - Dug out literally hundreds of foxglove seedlings
2 - Moved self seeded Cavolo Nero seedlings to this year's spot.
3 - Tidied up garden debris - swept up leaves, weeded, washed and tidied pots, disposed of litter ... yes, quite; it's a community garden so visitors/strangers/tenants and their families wander through. I'm still appalled that people will chuck plastic bottles, cigarette packets, beer bottles, plastic containers and food wrappers into a garden!! I also currently get scaffolders' debris. ๐Ÿ˜ 
4 - Ordered new netting to fence off the garden against cats and foxes.
5 - Continuously picked up the 'calling cards' from said pesky critters. ๐Ÿ˜ 
6 - Pruned gooseberry bushes, redcurrant, and quince, pear and apple trees - just in time!

6 jobs still to be done:

Make lots of paper pots. Then sow hundreds of seeds ...
Pot up spuds that are still chitting on the windowsill because I need more planters.
Repair fence and remesh (see 'Jobs completed')
Plant hedge - I'm going to grow an edible hedge! Excited? Oh yeah.
Finish new layout and herb bed in middle garden.
Move herbs from veg patch to other garden.
Buy cover for balcony staging to turn it into a mini greenhouse.
... Oh, and heaps more but let's not get overwhelmed too early in the season.

Linking to:
#sixonsaturday hosted by The Propagator blog 

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