Monthly Archives: May 2010

An Antidote to Chelsea

As the curtain falls on the 2010 Chelsea Flower Show the attention of the horticultural world turns once again to the Alternative Garden Show Awards, known affectionately as the Aggies, awarded to amateur garden designers. While there is no set limit to the money that may be spent, the style of the show is a far cry from the high budget gardens of Chelsea.

This year the show was held for the first time in the tiny French département of Ariège, at the foot of the Pyrenean mountains, a region whose slow pace of living and acceptance of the more natural pleasures of life is perfectly in tune with the show’s ethos.

The full list of awards has yet to be published, but the awards and particularly the judges’ comments give a flavour of this year’s designs.

Designer: Gilly Ginevre
Client: Herbals ‘R Us
Award: Silver Gilt medal

To produce an interesting garden from a limited group of plants, even a group as broad as herbs, is always a challenge and this talented designer has achieved a high standard. The judges were particularly impressed by the central circle with it’s mass planting of chives, nepeta and golden oregano.

Designer: Gilly Jambon
Client: Barn Conversions plc
Award: Silver medal

While much of the planting in this pleasing garden followed a mauve and yellow theme, the failure to maintain the theme throughout compromised the coherence of the garden. The judges appreciated the tendency in the early years of a garden to use the plants one has in order to reduce costs, but felt that a real opportunity had been lost here to produce a garden of true merit. When the hedges surrounding this terrace garden reach maturity and fully enclose the garden the space within will clearly be one of great charm and restfulness.

Designer: Gilly I.N. Trouble
Client: (Name Withheld)
Award: None

The client brief for this garden was for a contemplative space in the style of a maghrébin courtyard, using only cream-coloured flowers. The designer has failed to meet this brief and therefore could not be awarded a medal. A box hedge in a geometric pattern does not constitute an Arab courtyard, nor do a few straggly cream eschscholtzia californica fulfill the colour requirement. In the judge’s opinion the designer has failed so spectacularly to achieve the style requested as to constitute a blatant disregard for the show’s rules. She is therefore banned from entering the competition for a period of five years (please note that the Flavio Briatore gambit will not work here).

Designer: Mother Nature
Client: Gaia
Award: Gold medal and Best In Show

The judges were unanimous in awarding Best In Show to this exceptional example of a natural landscape. The designer’s use of the indiginous lime and hazel trees in the foreground to enclose the view over pasture land and barns to the sparcely planted hillside beyond shows a true understanding of nature and beauty. Mother Nature’s vast experience and her eye for detail and simplicity shines out in this exemplary design.

The judges and organisers would like to thank all the designers and gardeners for their hard work and enthusiasm in making the show once again such a huge success. See you again in 2011.


Wordless Wednesday: Aquilegia/Ancolie/Columbine, 19 May 2010

Elderflower cordial memories

Recipe picThe talk on Twitter this afternoon was of elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne. The flowers are already forming on the trees in the valleys here, but we in the hills must wait a little longer for this free gift from the hedgerows. I remembered making the cordial many years ago and I found the recipe, rather crumpled and torn, at the back of a recipe folder.

As you see it is just a scribbled note in my very worst fast handwriting but it set off a train of memories. Although it is not dated, I can tell when I must have copied it. The top half of the page is notes from a course I did at Birmingham University in the early 1980’s on the European Union, still called then the European Economic Union (EEC). I did badly in the exam and only just scraped through. Judging by the quality of the note-taking I am not surprised!

That was not a good year for me, I had lots of personal problems and I spent part of the summer staying in Edgbaston with a friend, Linda, one of my tutors. I remember taking a bottle of elderflower cordial as a present; she had never tasted it before and said it was ‘nectar’.

I notice I wrote ‘elderberry cordial’ by mistake and changed it to elderflower. Perhaps I was remembering my first holiday with my soon-to-be husband – a week in a caravan at Westward-Ho in Devon. It was supposed to be a romantic week, just me and husband-to-be, but my mother threw a fit about my proposed immoral behaviour (this was a very long time ago!) and said I needn’t think I was coming back to live in a respectable house after behaviour like that. I was all for going anyway but husband-to-be liked a quiet life so my mum and her sister came along too to protect the good name of the family. There was not a lot of privacy and absolutely no disgraceful behaviour. I have three memories of the week: winning a coffee set at the camp site bingo night (I go away for a naughty week and end up playing bingo with my mum!), washing my hair in rainwater for the first time and being delighted with how soft it felt and getting more than a little tipsy after two schooners of elderberry wine. We knew how to live back then.

Which brings me to the recipe:

Elderflower Cordial
20 heads of elderflower
4 oranges, sliced
1 lemon, sliced
3 lbs sugar (roughly 1.4kg)
2 oz tartaric acid (50gm)
3 pints water (1.8litres), boiled and cooled

Put all ingredients in large bowl and leave to stand for 48 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain and bottle. Serve diluted to taste.

I see a note on the right of the recipe which says ‘goosegog and elderberry sorbet’. I don’t remember making that, but I imagine you could do it with stewed gooseberries and some of the cordial.

As for elderflower champagne, if you leave the cordial for long enough I remember it got a bit ‘lively’, but for a proper recipe see the excellent Bliss blog at this URL : (I promise to work out how to do a proper link very soon)

Snow in May – surveying the damage

The snow disappeared last week faster than it had arrived. In the space of four hours it was gone, leaving sodden ground, a rivulet running down the drive and the garden a depressing mess. But, to put my little drama in perspective , the weight of snow plus a gusty wind had brought down a large number of trees and electricity cables; a friend who lives at a higher altitude than us, at the end of a forest track, was unable to get out until the Womble arrived with trusty chainsaw and cleared the trees fallen across his track; another friend lost a large magnolia tree which spilt from top to bottom under the weight of snow. It was the worst May snow experienced here for 20 years.

The depth of snow which fell last week, about ten inches, is not unusual, we had far more than that during the winter and it stayed on the ground for much longer. Fallen branches and trees are a regular occurrence, but damage to the garden is not. The difference this time was that the plants were not dormant as in winter, in fact the unusually high temperatures in April meant that there was more growth than normal, the lupins, for example, already had flower heads forming. This made the plants more vulnerable. In addition the snow was very wet because the temperature was hovering around zero and this seemed to weigh the plants down badly.

So having first ranted then cheered myself up with a little ditty it was time to take stock. The good news was that nothing was dead. On first sight that seemed to be the only good news – it was a mess, a very flat mess. The worst hit were those things with hollow stems or plenty of soft foliage. Lupins, sedums and nepeta in particular looked dreadful and the garden is full of all three. The nepeta was absolutely flat on the ground, my gardener’s eye may have been horrified but the photographer’s eye, looking straight down, found it strangely beautiful.

Poor Dicentra spectabilis got her second shock of the week. Only a few days after learning she is now to be known by one of the ugliest horticultural names –Lamprocapnos spectabilis – this happens to her:

Dicentra no more and not quite so spectabilis now either.

In the orchard the only damage was to one of the pear trees, probably Poire William (lost label, again) which lost the only branch that had blossom on it. In truth its shape was poor due to the wind and my poor pruning so I cut the only other long branch off and it looks better for it. In the soft fruit area the current bushes had been knocked flat but were already starting to spring back. The raspberries were less lucky, probably 30% of the stems were snapped in half. Annoying, but both strawberries and raspberries fruit twice here, so we will probably just have less early fruit and more late.

In tbe central part of the Herb Circle are three young willow trees, grown from whips given to me three years ago. They are now nearly four metres tall but the trunks are still thin. The snow bent them over until their tips touched the ground. We expected them to spring back, but they didn’t. They are now pulled back into position by ropes, which we will release in a few days by which time they will hopefully be able to hold themselves up.

It is now several days since the snow disappeared and the damaged plants are showing an ability to bounce back that I didn’t expect. The nepeta started very quickly to turn its shoots upwards again, but only around the edges so that it formed a coronet rather than a mound. I have cut it back and must wait for it to regrow. The lupins recovery is mixed, some are still a mess,

others have grown so much new leaf that you can barely see there had been a problem.

The plant that surprised me the most was the sedums, whose stems are clearly much sturdier than they look. They have gone from this:

To this:

In conclusion, what have I learnt? That the weather will always throw rocks under the gardener’s feet and that the plants have a greater resilience than I have. Or put more simply: Don’t Panic.

Incidentally, while all of this was going on my apricots continued to grow and the kiwi has set its first ever fruit. Don’t you just love being a gardener.

Snow in May – a little ditty

The sun is out, the snow is starting to melt and I am feeling slightly calmer. So here is a little ditty based optimistically and possibly a little prematurely on the final verse of Allan Sherman’s song ‘Camp Grenada’:

Wait a minute,
Snow is going,
Plants are living,
Plants are growing,
Making new shoots
Without my aid,
Blogosphere chums
Kindly disregard that tirade.

NB. If you don’t know the song you will find it on on this link (I hope) –

No! No! No more snow!

Not so much a blog post as a tirade. I have tried to write a rational, reasonable post about recent weather, but, since the weather is being neither rational nor reasonable, why should I be? Thanks also to the weather, there will be no photographs (see note 1 below). If you don’t like rants I suggest you leave now.

Q1: Have I worked in the garden nearly all day, nearly every day for nearly five weeks without a complaint?
A1: Yes, yes, yes … and no.

Q2: Have I cleared all the weeds from Wisley (see note 2)?
A2: Indeed you have.

Q3: Did I split the phlomis into lots of bits and plant it in drifts in the aforementioned Wisley and did it look a treat?
A3: Yes and yes … and yes.

Q4: Did I move loads of lupins from the nursery, even though they were getting a bit big, to self-same Wisley, without killing a single one?
A4: You did indeed, O Wondrous One, although that one on the right doesn’t look too happy.

Q5: Were the honesty, astilbe, verbena bonariensis (AKA as Argentina by The Womble), verbascum, clematis Ernest Markham, flag irises, aquilegia and two rose bushes that I planted growing well or were they not?
A5: Get to the point, woman!

Q6: Did I not drag wheelbarrowsful of manure from the orchard track to give them a good start?
A6: It was only just the other side of the hedge, but yes you did.

Q7: And did I not plant innumerable artemesia babies in drifts throughout the Herb Circle (see Note 3)?
A7: Yup.

Q8: … And water them every evening for days and days and …
A8: Yes!!!

Q9: Which reminds me: didn’t I carry water from the water butt, all through the herb circle and up those steps to Wisley umpteen times for the new plants?
A9: S’pose so. (yawns)

Q10: And didn’t I weed the southern sector of the Herb Circle to within an inch of its chickweedy life then tastefully plant up with swathes of artemesia, solidago, bouillon blanc (verbascum), saponaria, bronze fennel, nepeta, angeli…..
A10: You did, you did, you did. It all looks lovely. What IS your point?

Rant 1: My point, Sir, is that, while I was doing all this work, the weather was getting hotter and hotter and drier and drier and the plants were growing faster and faster in the sun and drooping faster and faster in the drought and the water butts were getting emptier and emptier and it was only blasted April, for crying out loud!

Q11: And do you know what happened then?
A11: Earthquake? Volcanic ash cloud? You broke a nail polishing your halo?

Rant 2: Watch it, Smarty Pants! What happened next was – it snowed. It’s May and it snowed! Ten inches of the horrible stuff. I did all that work in Wisley and the herb circle, and bits in the kitchen terrace, not to mention the potager and all those strawberry plants I transplanted. I’ve got asparagus freezing their tips off, I had lilac blossom for the very first time, my very first apricots just forming, pears ditto, Victoria and Quetsche d’Alsace plums likewise, I have a greenhouse full of plants bursting to be planted. I could go on …
Rantee: (aside) I thought you were.
Ranter: It is just so unfair.
Rantee: No-one …
Ranter: Do not tell me that no-one said life was going to be fair. I know that. I know snow is an insulator. I know most things will be fine, next year if not this year. I know that by July I won’t be able to tell the difference….
Rantee: That’s good …
Ranter: SHUT UP! This is MY blog, MY garden, MY rant and it’s NOT BLOODY FAIR!

End of rant. You can all come out from behind the sofa now.

Ranter: That was quite cathartic.
Rantee: You’ve gone a funny colour.
Ranter: Put the kettle on, there’s a love.
Rantee: There’s some of those custard creams left that Jane sent you, the ones she calls ‘those awful biscuits’.
Ranter: She’s Irish, she doesn’t understand these things.
Rantee: Here’s your tea.
Ranter: Aaa…rrr…hhh.

1. Thanks to the dreadful weather the phone reception is awful and I can’t upload photos.
2. Wisley is an 18m by 12m rectangular garden inspired by, but unfortunately looking nothing like, the long walk at RHS Wisley, the one that goes up the hill to the statue. In reality it is a lawn surrounded by herbaceous borders, but it does look very pretty in summer when it overflows with colour.
3. The Herb Circle is 16m in diameter, comprising a 6m inner circle, a circular path and an outer ring. It is predominantly herbs, although I do cheat a bit occasionally.

4. Please note that no ear-drums were perforated in the making of this blog.