Friday, January 25, 2013

That "leave the garden for a year" rule

Running two blogs is trickier than I thought. When I started up my new blog, Tales from Awkward Hill, about life in Bibury, Gloucestershire, I thought I would use this blog, Victoria's Backyard, to write about gardening in general, and my new blog to write specifically about my own house and garden.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but only a couple of months in, I find myself writing about a subject that would sit equally well on either. So ... it's going on both! Apologies if you feel cheated. What can I say? I'm a cheapskate.

The classic advice when you move into a new house and garden is to leave the garden for a year before you make any changes. This allows you to see what is in the garden - to identify trees that may not have been in leaf when you moved in; to discover what bulbs come up in spring; to find out where the hot/dry spots and the cool/damp spots are; to determine the best place (shady or sunny, depending on your personal taste) to put your garden table and chairs; to see how your views of the neighbourhood (or their views of you) work when trees are both in leaf, and bare in winter.
Indeed, there are a whole host of good reasons not to rush into making changes in a garden you have only just acquired.
What the experts don't tell you, however, is that it is incredibly frustrating simply to sit and look at a garden if you are used to pottering happily outside, cutting a new lawn edge here or replanting an area there. Luckily, my garden is under a blanket of thick snow at the moment, so that has meant a few days less in the year when I am not driven mad by the urge to go outside and CHANGE THINGS!
However, it's still only January. What on earth am I going to be like by the time I've been to the Malvern Spring Show, to the Chelsea Flower Show, to Barnsley House down the road, or to the local gardens that open under the National Gardens Scheme? Even a visit to the garden centre is sometimes enough to inspire me to rejig a part of the garden completely. Must I completely ignore all these sources of inspiration and temptation?
Then there is the long list of plants that keep metaphorically poking me in the ribs, chorusing: "Plant us, plant us!" Must I really go a whole year without putting in Rosa 'Ballerina', or Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Lanarth', or Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo', or Dianthus carthusianorum or the whole host of other things on my wish list?
Yes, there are snowdrops coming through, which is very exciting (at least, it would be if I could see them). Somewhere under all that snow, there are primroses and bluebells waiting in the wings, and I'm looking forward to their gala performance later in the spring.
However, there are other bits of the garden that I really don't want to see in their current state this time next year - or indeed in six months' time. One is the gap between the two terraces, at the back and the side of the house, and I have already had a new walkway built that connects the two. "Now you can follow the sun right round the house with a drink in your hand," said the builder. With a drink in my hand? Are you kidding? With a heavy load of plants in my wheelbarrow, more like.
Running alongside the terrace at the back are two small borders. One is full of marjoram (where it isn't overgrown with grass, nettles and perennial weeds such as plantains). The other has a huge clump of what looks like Iris sibirica at one end, and a matching selection of grass, nettles and weeds.
When I first viewed the house, in late August, the irises had long gone over, and the borders looked a bit of a mess. I thought then that tidying them up would probably be my first project.
I've already made the borders deeper and deturfed the bits that were completely overgrown. They are full of bulbs - lots of snowdrops, by the look of them - so a full-scale replanting can wait until March. Technically, spring is too early to split the iris, but I'm going to take some of it out next month anyway, and pot up the divisions to plant in the other border or elsewhere in the garden. If they don't take, it's not the end of the world, and if they do, they will help create a sense of unity.
The experts say Iris sibirica should be divided in summer or early autumn, but the experts also say its spread is around 30cm to 90cm, depending on the variety. This particular clump, or cluster of clumps, is about 6ft in diameter. So much for experts.
I want a classic cottage-garden look here, with billowing clumps of hardy geraniums, lavender, Verbena bonariensis and roses, followed by sedums, grasses and rudbeckia to carry the torch on into early autumn.


Work on the new bit of terrace got under at the beginning of December. It's a basic block wall construction, with a traditional dry stone facade.


It's now finished, but for the first couple of weeks, I couldn't bring myself to walk on it. I was so pleased with it, I didn't want to spoil it with muddy footprints!


Making a start on the borders at the back of the house. Oh, for lighter evenings! If you do something in the garden at this time of year, you have a daylight window of about four hours. And by the time you've remembered to take a photograph, it's dark.


Ooooh, look - there's a paved bit hidden away underneath here. How lovely - almost as exciting as snowdrops.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Revenge of the Yellow Book

Anne Wareham tells me that her garden, Veddw, has been dropped from the National Garden Scheme's Yellow Book next year, apparently as a punishment for the piece she wrote in the Spectator earlier this year.

She say the Chief Executive of the NGS, George Plumptre, told her: "I don't think you have any concept how many hundreds of humble, innocent garden owners and NGS volunteers were deeply hurt by your diatribe in The Spectator earlier this year."
Anne has a reputation for being controversial; some would say abrasive. That's what she does; in the cosy world that is British horticulture, she is the grit that helps create the pearl in the oyster. Perhaps a better analogy would be to compare her to the stone in your shoe that stops you in your tracks and makes you question your preconceptions.
The NGS, on the other hand, is a charity. It has no business being controversial, abrasive or - apparently - vengeful. I don't know George Plumptre very well, but he has always seemed to me to be a sensible sort of chap, so I very much hope that this is a misunderstanding.
Personally, I don't always agree with Anne's views. We differ greatly on the subject of lawn edging, for example. However, I think she has very interesting things to say about garden design, and about the way we appreciate gardens.
I went to a lecture by Sir Roy Strong during the Olympics, and he was talking about how the British inhabit a landscape of the imagination - a make-believe world which has more to do with sentiment and nostalgia than it has to do with reality.
He cited The Haywain (below) by John Constable - one of the most famous paintings in the world - and pointed out that Constable didn't paint it from life, but in his London studio. Not only that, he painted the scene as he remembered it from his childhood.


We British have a very irritating tendency to look back, like Lot's wife, or Orpheus (and remember what happened to them!), at past glories. Gardeners are always trying to recreate a Sissinghurst or a Hidcote, and public taste applauds and colludes.
I'm not at all convinced that it is healthy to wallow in les temps perdu. Tempting, yes, but ultimately unexciting and uncreative. At least let's not get cross when someone tries to prod us out of our Edwardian daydream.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Harvest festival for hipsters

I had a rather novel experience yesterday evening - I went to an RHS show and found I was one of the oldest people there. It was the RHS London Harvest Festival Show, and for the first time ever, the show was open until 9pm.
Now, this was good in itself. I can rarely get to the London RHS shows because they are held during the week, during the day. I have to take a day off, or slope into work a bit later. The idea of being able to go to a show on the way home, instead of lugging my purchases onto the Tube and into the office, is brilliant.
Not only that, there was a cocktail bar. Yes, a cocktail bar! It was Lottie Muir's Midnight Apothecary bar, which Lottie, aka the Cocktail Gardener, started at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, and which has already become an institution.


There was a huge queue for cocktails, with hardly a person over 30 to be seen. Being a cynical hack, I suspected that the RHS had drafted in some of their younger members of staff to swell the crowds. However, this was not the case: the two women behind me said they'd read about the event in Time Out, while the women in front of me had seen it advertised on an events listings website.

While waiting in the queue for our cocktails, we were entertained by the London Vegetable Orchestra. I'd seen them at Hampton Court a couple of years ago, but had never heard their full repertoire.
It wasn't all cocktails and courgette clarinets. There was the usual Fruit and Vegetable Competition, with specimens of quite extraordinary size and length laid out on the tables. Wesley Kerr pointed out to me the rivalry between the Duke of Marlborough (known as "Sunny") and the Duke of Devonshire (whose prep school nickname was Stoker), who compete every year to see who can win first prize for their grapes. I love the idea of "Sunny" and "Stoker" jostling for first prize with their bunches of muscats. Talk about pistils at dawn.
There was food too: cheese, from Godsells in Gloucestershire (whose cheeses include The Three Virgins and Singing Granny); mushrooms and sausages, plus apples from the Wisley orchards.
Anyway, if the RHS is still concerned about ways to encourage the under-30s into gardening,  I reckon they can stop worrying. All it takes, apparently, is a few cocktails and a group of men fingering weirdly shaped vegetables.