Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dolly Parton meets Lutyens? Roy Strong does not meet us.

 Funny business, acting as a tour guide in your own locality (The Welsh Borders), driving around in a big coach, in places that are really familiar, talking people through who don't know it all. Helps you see the familiar afresh. Also rather funny to roll up at your own garden, show people around and then all get back on the coach again.
Stephen and Judith Anderton's cottge high in the Black Mountains


 Stephen Anderton, garden correspondent for The Times now lives in  a site with fantastic views, which have I think rather unwilling to try to compete with the location by making something so humble as a garden. So, planting is largely restricted to the side of the house away from the view. Its feels like a cottage garden but with more contemporary plants, such as grasses and kniphofias. It actually feels very undesigned, and artless - difficult to know whether this is really the case. I really like it, there is something very unpretentious about it, and the colouring works well, lots of different colours but subtle harmonies everywhere. Lots of succulents and ferns sitting in pots on old stone steps. The garden of someone who loves growing lots of plants and feels under no pressure to make bold statements or impress anybody.

"The slugs are this long" Peter Clay expounds the story of his garden, Sue MacGregor of Boxwood Tours looks on.

 Brockhampton Cottage, near Hereford, went down very well. Home of Peter Clay, who runs Crocus the online garden centre. The fact that he took time out of a busy working schedule to talk to us at length about the garden, how it fits into its wide and very English and very beautiful landscape, and his involvement with designer Tom Stuart-Smith, was much appreciated.

 H.Avray Tipping was a well-known, but now largely forgotten, garden designer of the early 20th century, and a key part of the Arts and Crafts movement which has dominated British garden design ever since (which is a thoroughly bad thing if you believe my colleague Tim Richardson). A&C gardening is a harmless pursuit and it balances order and growth so well, many of us are quite happy to follow in the footsteps of Tipping, Jekyll, Sackville-West et al. Tipping created three gardens in the Monmouthshire area, only one of which has been restored, by the current owners, Hilary and Helena Gerrish. Helena has just written a book about him. So now you have no excuse to say you have never heard of him.
High Glanau vintage Arts and Crafts
The trouble with mounts is that some people just have to stand on top of them and wave their arms about.
We also visited Westonbury Watermill, a modern folly and water garden,  where owner Richard Pim is building an enormous (two storey) water-powered cuckoo clock. Watch this space.

Westonbury Water Mill, at Pembridge, Herefs. features a very impressive gunnera maze. Jo is describing the size of our cabbages this year.

The Pant, near Abergavenny, is a most intriguing landscape-as-garden, created by Jeremy and Camilla Swift. Jeremy is an eminent anthropologist, and much of the garden's content reflects interests from his professional life. It is a garden of great subtlety, making the most of wonderful surroundings.

The loo at The Laskett - strangely austere
 Finally, The Laskett, well-known through the voluminous writings of Roy Strong. It is obsessively formal, with allee upon allee, and everything in sight topiarised to within millimetres of its life. He has clearly had enormous fun making it - which after all is the most important thing. I love the way he bulldozes through so many of the basic rules of garden design. Unfortunately he disgraced himself by failing to keep an appointment to meet us, so we had to wander around by ourselves, getting lost in a kind of Alice in Wonderland world of hedges, hedges, yet more hedges, pleaching and monuments (mostly to himself, and one to a cat).

Roy Strong and I in 1996, or thereabouts. Check the body language. I still have the shirt, I understand he gives all his clothes to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Reminds me, I must make arrangements to do the same. We've both cut our hair by the way.

 You may have gathered that Mr Strong and I don't see eye to eye on gardening matters. I think I once wrote that a garden restoration of his should be bulldozed into the Thames (the Hampton Court Privy Garden). We once had a wonderfully bitchy spat on the radio, which could have been the start of a re-play of Robinson versus Blomfield (a great and rather stylised debate of the A&C era - see above), but I think both of us had rather more important things to do (promoting naturalistic planting design in my case and writing fawning books on the British monarchy in his).

Tour leading is great fun, you get to meet lots of interesting people (even if not Roy Strong), and hear about their lives and interests. Over the days, you learn about what they like in gardens and what they don't like, I always find it interesting getting people's reactions, I also learn a lot too, they always see things i have never noticed, even in places I know well. Seeing familiar places through other people's eyes in this way is actually rather special.

Finally, there was one comment I adored, I'm not saying which garden it was about... "Dolly Parton meets Lutyens".

Well not quite finally, we had Monique and Thierry Dronet, of the wonderful Jardin de Berchigranges, stay with us recently. Lovely people, kindred spirits; Thierry pointed out to us that (unbeknown to us)his  garage was on the front cover of a book on green building in the guest room of our (needless to say eco-build) guest room. They had the idea of digging up half a square metre of our wildflower meadow and planting it in the middle of a new meadow area they are creating. So here it is going in, a little bit of Herefordshire in the Vosges mountains.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

“Grrrt lush!” – exotic fruit in the west of England.

            Peaches and apricots at 52 degrees north and 167m (547ft) in the English/Welsh borders is pretty good going. Nothing to do with global warming or microclimate, although they are on the south wall of the house, and all to do with good modern plant breeding.
            The peach we’ve had for four years; its fruited for three of those, and we were up to 24 this year. Good juicy flavourful peaches, far better than anything you can buy in the shops. Its name ‘Avalon Pride’ made me think it must have been bred somewhere near Glastonbury in Somerset, which of course would meant that it is a “grrrt lush” variety in the local lingo. But it turns out to be from the Seattle area, and a more or less accidental discovery, a seedling which appeared to be totally resistant to the peach leaf curl disease which devastates peaches, especially in cold wet winter climate zones like ours. It turned out to be very hardy too, although hardiness is not really the issue with peaches, rather that they flower very early, and the young fruit are easily caught by later frosts. They are so pretty in bloom that they are almost worth growing for their flowers alone. 

            The apricot was even more of a surprise. I bought it from DT Brown, a mail-order vegetable seed company. It arrived, very crudely pruned, and it went into soil at the base of our home’s massive mid 18th century chimney stack – its not good soil at all, so we’ll have to try to improve it with compost mulching from now on. No expectations of any apricots. Actually we aren’t great apricot fans, they often seem to taste rather astringent, or maybe that’s just European ones. The best apricots I’ve had are the dry ‘white’ ones you can get in the Hunza valley in northern Pakistan, mysteriously completely unlike the little round balls sold as Hunza apricots in wholefood shops here.
            Apricots are very hardy. Very. Winter in northern Pak at 3000m is very very cold, but once it’s spring it doesn’t freeze. So the locals of the Hunza and neighbouring valleys grew family apricot trees – that’s family as in several different varieties on each tree. Dried on rooftops during the intensely hot and dry summer, they would be eaten as a staple diet for the rest of the year. Imagine living on apricot porridge for breakfast, dinner and tea, with a bit of barley thrown in for excitement.
            Again, the problem for us as apricot growers is that the young fruit gets caught by late frosts. However our variety ‘Flavourcot’ and its sister ‘Tomcot’ have been bred in New Zealand to flower a little later and so reduce the frost risk. To our astonishment this year we harvested thirty fruit, deliciously juicy and without much astringency. Actually they really were the nicest apricots I have ever tasted. Since then I have heard of someone in nearby Gloucestershire planting a commercial orchard of –cot type varieties.
            I wonder what other surprises the future might bring. British bananas are a theoretical possibility. Anyone who knew us at our last house would have been familiar with the vast Musa basjoo in the backgarden. I had planted it when Jo was away teaching for two years in Bratislava (1993) and it just grew and grew in its sheltered inner-city Bristol, cat-shit fed, environment. Every year we would hack bits off for people. Last winter (minus 12) killed it to ground level, but the tenants in the house reported that by May it was sprouting again.
            Musa basjoo is a higher altitude south Chinese species, with inedible fruit full of bullet hard seeds. The fruit is also produced very late as it flowers late in cool British summers. Even with conventional breeding techniques I reckon it might be possible to start on the path to a variety which had small edible fruit by late autumn in southern Britain, or certainly in the warmer summers of central Europe.
            Roll on modern plant breeding!