15 Apr 2010

The Im-Patient Gardener…

"I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty." - Georgia O'Keeffe

I've been eyeing up the seemingly empty pots of soil on my balcony for weeks wondering if the tulips and squills planted to herald the Spring season would ever flower.  The bulbs were bought from Morrison's for a quid (£1) so I didn't entirely trust their provenance.  More than once in my haste, I've considered repotting the bulbs (yes, even at this late stage) into the ground below and getting my balcony salads into the vacant pots. At last, yesterday, I was rewarded with the flowering of the first of my white tulips, the sun was shining and so,  you'll have to excuse me, but I did have a tiny Georgia O'Keeffe moment.

I'm off to the Hampshire coast for a nice long weekend, enjoying the last few (hopefully, sunny) days of the school holidays and meandering through the little public garden which is maintained by the community in my parents' village.  Hoping the weather stays good for us all!

13 Apr 2010

Can ya Dig it?

Some while ago, I signed up to that "Stop sending me piles of Junk which I then have to recycle" service, which means that when my lovely postie knocks at the door, he's usually delivering something nice.  Yesterday, at last, I received this envelope of joyfulness from the BBC:

I'm particularly looking forward to the Black Beauty Courgettes and Blue Lake French Beans if I can figure out where to squeeze them in.  The mixed Salad Leaves (Lettuce, Chard, Spinach, Mizuna), Chantenay Carrots and Sweet Genovese Basil will be grown in pots on my balcony (again, a few space issues) with a few seedlings heading over to my Mum and Dad's garden in Hampshire (along with Sweet Peas, Broad Beans and Peas). 

If you haven't received yours yet, don't panic.  I signed up to their newsletter last year and so put in my request in mid-March as soon as it was announced.  Unfortunately, the Dig In website now shows that the offer has closed as all the free seeds have gone…  which, I suppose, is good news as it would seem that lots of people are interested in growing their own grub - let's hope they actually sow the seeds!

If you didn't get round to signing up for the seeds, you can still follow along and get gardening advice and recipes, or track down the Dig It roadshow and claim your free packs there - but I'm guessing that y'all know that already as the Dig It thingy has been mentioned on all BBC gardening progs.

The Dig In website is here (opens in new tab)
The tour starts in Swansea this weekend.  Tour dates here. (opens in new tab)

8 Apr 2010

Visiting Prospect…

It seems, quite justifiably, that the garden at Prospect Cottage is a dream destination for many gardeners but likely to remain on many wish-lists because of the distance involved in travelling and the logistics of overnight accommodation.  I can possibly offer a solution.

By chance, I mentioned to my sister (who lives in the Midlands) that I was going to Dungeness.  "Oh! I've been there; that's the place with those funny little cottages at the end of the railway line."  Er, yep.  That's the one.  You need to know that my sister is not interested in gardens, neither is she likely to suddenly take off to the south coast on a whim, so I asked how she came to be in Dungeness.  She had wanted to find a means of enabling our extensive family to visit my lovely niece who lives in Kent and had booked a Sun Holiday (the cheap £9.50 per person variety) at a holiday park in Dymchurch.  As a means to an end, she thought the weekend spent in a seaside holiday caravan (self-catering) was not too arduous, despite the weather being typically out-of-season dreadful.  She hadn't known about the existence of Prospect Cottage but took a trip on the Dymchurch to Dungeness steam railway as a treat for her little grandson.

So, while it may not be to everyone's taste,  if you want a cheap way of visiting Prospect Cottage, it may be worth your while to book a weekend caravan at Park Holidays New Beach and let the train take the strain. Once you arrive in Dungeness, the Britannia Inn serves delicious fish and chips and there are other local attractions such as the 'acoustic ears' and lighthouse to visit.

I think the Sun Holidays offer comes round about three times a year but is cheapest in the Spring and Autumn - I'm not a Sun reader but I know a man who is!

(Not drowning, but waving…)  
One of Derek Jarman's stone circles in front of Prospect  Cottage.

1 Apr 2010

Prospect Cottage … (part 2 of my Perch and Prospect Day)

I had a long held wish to see the seaside garden created by film-maker and artist, Derek Jarman, on the shingle at Dungeness in Kent.  A short(ish) drive south-east from Perch Hill via Rye would bring us to Prospect Cottage and, with great excitement, that was added to the plan.  Strangely, given the fame of its creator, on arrival (through wind and rain) we found that the cottage and garden is now a private residence - I half expected that it would be kept open as a place of interest - a handwritten note on the door asks that visitors refrain from peering in the windows and taking photos without prior written permission. Oops, I hastily backed away.

The cottage boundaries are not marked by fences so it is possible to walk around without trespassing.  After a reviving thimble of tea (I forgot the mugs and we had to drink from the lid of the flask), - and a delicious cream slice thoughtfully provided by my co-conspirator, Leigh - I circumnavigated the black hub of the cottage from a distance, spiralling my way inwards as it seemed that (with great good fortune) nobody was at home.  I didn't want to get too close but every angle of the garden revealed fantastic treasures, even at this time of year and in this harsh windswept environment.

Derek Jarman wrote about the evolution of the garden in his book 'derek jarman's garden', worth looking at for Howard Sooley's photographs and packed with wonderful stories.  I empathise when Derek Jarman writes, "I can look at one plant for an hour, this brings me great peace."

In his lifetime, the garden was filled with vegetables and herbs - grown in raised beds so that the roots wouldn't absorb any waste from the nearby power station.  Plants were tested for survival with poppies, sweet peas, sea-kale, viper's bugloss (native to Dungeness), pinks, night-scented stock,  nasturtiums and wild flowers like Nottingham catchfly and pea vetch doing well.  Lavender also thrived.  Sea-ephemera was added between the plants,  brought back after long dawn walks along the beach, especially when storms (frequent) had shifted the shingle.

The corkscrew poles supporting sweet-peas were originally fence posts driven into the shingle during the war to support anti-tank fencing when it was thought England might be invaded.  I must go back in the summer to see if sweet peas still grow there.  For now, in its winter guise, the garden is silver-green and brown; the santolinas (cotton lavender) flourish, as does the gorse, but little else has sprung into life - which makes the sudden sight of lime-green euphorbia or a lone daffodil (surprisingly!) so stunning.

This garden for me was the cherry on the cake of my day of garden visiting; Perch Hill was inspirational but, before I lived in London, I mostly lived by the sea and am a beach-comber at heart.  I have driftwood art and boxes of hag-stones, glass jars of sea-washed glass and sweetshop jars of shells and beach stones, matchboxes filled with fossils of shark's teeth and an old sailor's chest filled with the flotsam and jetsam of beach walks (rope, driftwood, crab shells).  I quite simply fell in love with Prospect Cottage and Dungeness.  Life on the beach (even in the shadow of Europe's biggest nuclear power station) must be very uplifting, if slightly surreal and solitary. Eventually the weather clamped down again over Dungeness,  hiding the enormous power station and, buffeted by strong winds, we drove off through the drizzling mist.  As they say in the movies: I'll be back. 

Here, though, are a couple more of my favourite photos from the day:

And, finally, perhaps more apt now than ever, John Donne's poem fixed to the West wall of the cottage:

The Sunne Rising
Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
Late schoole boyes and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time…
Thou sunne art half as happy as wee,
In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
to warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy spheare.


30 Mar 2010

For Elspeth Thompson, who will be missed

'Love in A Mist'
(photographed in the Crescent Gardens in Alverstoke, Hampshire Oct 2009)

I was greatly saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Elspeth Thompson.  Although I only knew her through her writing, the news of her death was shocking.  She wrote of a gentle, sunny life that most would envy and yet she suffered from depression and took her own life last Thursday.

Elspeth's columns about gardening (and interiors) appeared in both the Sunday Telegraph and Guardian newspapers and her gardening books inspired many urban gardeners (The London Gardener, Urban Garden, A Tale of Two Gardens, to name just a few).  Her blog, 'Off the Rails', is one of only a handful that I return to regularly; her posts revealed a glimpse into her life by the sea as she converted two railway carriages into an eco-home and created a vegetable garden on the Sussex shingle. 

She set up a new blog at the beginning of March, 'Gardening Against the Odds', which I was very much looking forward to following.  It was to be about gardening in the most unpromising of places.  I had meant to send her my photo of a rowing boat planted up with marrows, drifted up on the putting green of a windy seafront in Hampshire.  Now when I see the boat, it will remind me that no-one's life is perfect and I'll stop, count my blessings, be glad of my friends and family and be grateful. 

Elspeth Thompson's obituary in the Telegraph can be read here.  A full obituary will be published this Sunday, 4th April.

27 Mar 2010

Perch and Prospect - the Perfect Day…

The Perch and Prospect: sounds like a very enticing pub, doesn't it?  Be prepared to be envious, for the truth is much better than that: I refer to the Grand Day Out which I had last weekend.

Using the excuse of my forthcoming birthday, a drive to Sussex was planned in order to check out Sarah Raven's garden farm at Perch Hill.  It's been on my Bucket List for some time as Ms Raven sits on my bookshelf in the guise of two of her books 'The Great Vegetable Plot' and 'Growing your own Cut Flowers'.  The gorgeous photos in these tomes are nothing short of veg-porn if, like me, you love a bit of gardening and cooking, so a visit was long overdue.

 (View of the South Downs through the Euphorbia and Lettuce patch)

Going at the end of March, the weather was bound to be unpredictable. Sure enough, it was an overcast day with skies full of drizzling rain but that was okay.  We weren't there to admire her dahlias; we went to see the layout of the growing beds, have a snoop round and take away lots of ideas and photos (and seeds!).  A long 'Q and A' session with Sarah herself, held in the classroom of her gardening school, was a bonus.  Lots of top tips were gleaned; next time I'm taking a notebook.

Even at this time of year there are a few things growing, an important factor when the garden is open to the public!  The greenhouse cafe overlooked beds of winter salad leaves (mizuna, rocket, mustard) and kale was in plentiful supply in the garden. Many perennials were already starting to grow - lupins, artichokes, poppies, sedums, geraniums, rhubarb - but the most fascinating was to see the bones of the garden and how Sarah keeps her plants upright. Wonderful homemade hazel and willow supports will be completely hidden come midsummer.

 We were very taken with these beautiful willow supports!

 (Lovely views abound - this one through a wall arch to the Oast garden.)

When we got there, the admission price was waived which meant we could justify coffee (or tea) and a slice of home-made cake - actually not expensive at all but particularly good when you factor in the views over the South Downs. We had our coffee in the warmth of the greenhouse café where bright potted flowers were placed on each scrubbed wooden table and, to top it all, mine was poured by Sarah's husband, Adam Nicolson - author, gentleman, grandson of Vita Sackville-West and 5th Baron Carnock. A huge treat, indeed. (You may have seen the 6 part documentary last year where he locked horns with the National Trust to restore the wildness of Vita's garden at Sissinghurst and grow veg in the grounds there, which makes him a bit of a hero in my book.)

(Painted plant markers glimpsed the other side of the stable door.  The jasmine smelled heavenly!)

(Just loving everything about this rhubarb forcing pot! The shape, the moss…)

 After a morning playing Garden Detective at Perch Hill, we took a last stroll around the cuttings garden, admired the golden willow growing at the entrance, said goodbye and thanks to Adam N (walking his dogs in the muddy field/car park) and set off to our next destination (Prospect Cottage) at the seaside.

(Salix Alba Vitellina - Golden Willow - at the entrance to the Farm.)
Most of the willow had been recently coppiced, probably for the willow weaving workshops which are held at the farm.

P.S.  If you're thinking of visiting (well worth a return trip for us in the summer, I think), take your wellies if it's been raining.  And your wallets.  Despite having plenty of seeds already, we succumbed to the temptation of being able to grow fennel bulb, mizuna (green and red), sweetcorn, black velvet Nasturtiums and Cerinthe (Honeywort) for a bit of colour in our flower beds.  Also the cake (coffee for me, banana for Leigh) was given our  'Nice Slice' award.

(Lots of lovely flowers in the Café.)

More information about Sarah Raven's books, seeds can be found on her website; details of Open Days at Perch Hill can be found here.

I like to find out about the places that I've visited, and you may like to know that Adam Nicolson has written a book about the transition from London living to Perch Hill farming (published in 2000).  I'm borrowing my copy from the library but it's also available from Amazon.

More of our Grand Day Out next time with photos of our visit to Prospect Cottage!

15 Mar 2010

It's been a while…

Hi everyone!  Hope you didn't think that we'd been defeated by winter frosts and given up.  No, no!  not a bit of it; just biding our time in the cold, very much like our little winter plants.

But things are definitely on the move again.  A couple of weekends with skies like this:

…encouraged a Spring tidy up (despite bitterly cold winds!).  For me, it was an awesome Eureka!-type moment to discover that my Raab actually has little broccoli type florets (a feat attributable to nature rather than nurture):

And, if you'll just humour me for a tiny second, allow me to show off a little:


(need to plant more very very soon.  This lot will not be enough!)

(Baby spinach at the moment, yum.)

And, at the end of the day, a few beetroots, spring onions (a bit weather-beaten) and parsley destined for the cooking pot.

So now we have new parsley shooting through with room to breathe, white onions, red onions, garlic, spinach, kale, raab, blue radishes.  Peas, French beans and Broad Beans have been started off indoors.  Sweet Peas (for colour, scent and structure - free from Gardener's World!) likewise.  The mini-orchard will be budding soon - can't wait! - and the blueberries are potted up in lovely Morroccan blue glazed pots which we scooped up at bargain reduced prices Last Winter.  (Haha - said as if it was sooo long ago!)

This time last year I wouldn't have said I was that interested in veg gardening (perhaps a few herbs) but now I think I may be getting a teeny bit obsessed. Seed catalog(ue)s abound and I'm subscribing to the aforementioned Gardeners' World (good old Tesco points) and occasionally treating myself to the entirely gorgeous, inspirational (and aspirational) Gardens Illustrated.

Anyway, if I can tear myself away from thoughts and deeds of planting, I hope to be back with you all on a more regular basis.  See you soon!
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