Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Monday, 30 March 2015

A Different View

London's pollarded plane trees as seen from the coach window

I've explored the cheaper options for getting to London lately as I've been tempted up there quite a lot in March. As a result, I've enjoyed a different view of our capital from the bus compared to my usual train journey.

Highlights are a quick glimpse of Chiswick House, plus the trip along the Thames Embankment and a view of the boat houses moored on the river, even a Thames barge last week. Then we go past Chelsea Physic Garden and the Royal Hospital grounds with the latter looking quite calm compared to RHS showtime. It's a surprise to see the Chelsea pensioners in the local Tesco Express dressed in their workaday blue uniform instead of the red finery we're used to.

Spotting the Thames boat houses made me itch to capture their varied gardens for my Unusual Front Gardens series, as does the green wall I spotted on the side of the Porsche showroom as we whisked through Chiswick. I've yet to find the best opportunity to photograph these as I've either been sitting on the wrong side or the bus raced past them too quickly.

However, last Wednesday's tea-time snarl of rush-hour traffic gave me plenty of time to ponder London's plane trees. It was their seed balls which grabbed my attention first as they lent an out-of-season festive air to the streets. You can just about see a few of their baubles in the photo at the top of this post.

Even though I've photographed the plane trees at the Inner Temple Gardens previously, I hadn't really appreciated just how tall they are. Seeing them next to street after street of fine houses and how effortlessly they dwarf them brought this realisation sharply into focus.

I don't particularly like pollarded trees, but somehow in last week's stark evening light they seemed just right for where they are. I was struck by how each tree was like a giant hand with the knobbliest of fingers. These must have been trimmed back to their 'knuckles' over the winter. As my friend Helen says, "They always remind me of fists being shaken at the sky."

London is famous for its plane trees. They manage to thrive in polluted air as their bark regularly sloughs off the worst of what the tree has absorbed. They don't mind constricted roots and can last for hundreds of years. However, the pollarded version means they're relatively high maintenance and the threat of disease in recent years means they're being replaced (if at all) by other options such as silver birch.

It'll be a shame if these trees suffer the same fate. They're already a firm favourite on my alternative way home.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Of Yellow Books and Garden Walks

Photo of the Yellow Book which details all the gardens open for the NGS

On Wednesday I had the privilege of attending this year's launch of the Yellow Book. It was great to meet so many people involved with this organisation, to hear how last year's funds will be distributed, and learn what's new for 2015 and beyond.

The launch marks the starting gun firing for this year's garden visiting season, with nearly 4,000 gardens opening for the NGS from now until around the end of October. I'm particularly looking forward to visiting Karen and seeing how she gets on with her openings this year.

I shocked myself last September when I found myself thinking a trip to Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons was to a local event - compared to most things I'm invited to - which in reality turned out to be a 120 mile round trip. I also realised I've yet to visit many of the open gardens which are close to home.

Something had to be done about this sorry state of affairs.

The gigglesome yews at The Courts, Holt, Wiltshire
A view of the gigglesome yew trees at the National Trust's The Courts last Tuesday. Opens for the NGS on May 18th 2015, 11am-5pm. From here you can walk to the gardens at Great Chalfield Manor (National Trust, not opening for the NGS)

So I went onto the NGS website and used their Search facility to see what the possibilities are. It was a promising result, which in turn led to a plan forming in my head. Not only would I visit more local gardens this year, I'd visit them on NGS open days, AND I'd visit those within walking distance rather than driving there.

For 2015 I've restricted myself to those gardens of around 3 miles or less of where I live:

  • Allington Grange - 1.05 miles (opens 3rd, 4th  May, 2-5pm £4). An informal country garden of approx 1.5 acres
  • Biddestone Manor - 2.41 miles (opens 10th May, 2-5pm £5). 8 peaceful acres of wide lawns, lake and ponds, arboretum and roses, kitchen cutting gardens and orchard
  • Bolehyde Manor - 1.05 miles (opens 21st June, 2.30-6pm £4). I found this was the perfect garden to visit during 2010's Football World Cup
  • Corsham Court - 3.03 miles (opens 12th April, 10th May, 2-5pm £5). Park and gardens laid out by Capability Brown and Repton
  • 130 Ladyfield Road and Allotments - 0.98 miles (opens 26th July, 1.30-5.30pm £3). A very pretty small garden, plus 15 allotments owned by Chippenham Town Council
  • Sweet Briar Cottage - 1.36 miles (opens 26th July, 1.30-5pm £3.50). A walled garden of nearly 1 acre in the centre of town
Look out for my Garden Walks blog posts starting next month. For 2016 I plan to add some gardens slightly further afield. Have a look at the NGS website - how many gardens could you visit within walking distance of where you live?

Shhhhh, don't tell anyone but I've slipped in a few other [non-walking] local garden visits already this year, including the Abbey Gardens at Malmesbury on their NGS day earlier this month. NB 2015 might be the last chance to visit this garden as the house is up for sale.

Snowdops and aconites at Lacock Abbey, early February 2015. The gardens open for the
NGS again in February 2016. In the meantime they're open for the National Trust as usual.

Highlights from the Yellow Book launch:

  • 2014 was a record year with over 3,800 gardens opening and providing 6,891 open days. This raised £2.637 million for the good causes the NGS supports
  • The third annual NGS festival weekend is on 6-7 June 2015, with 400 gardens taking part
  • Sarah Wint will be taking her Daisy Bus around dozens of gardens this summer, where she'll pitch in and help each owner wherever she's needed and also blog about her experiences. Sarah has opened her garden for the NGS previously and knows how useful some last minute help can be!
  • There will be a new annual event - a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. Alan Titchmarsh kicks off the inaugural event in October
  • February 2016 will see the NGS's first Snowdrop Festival in partnership with Visit England

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #33



  1. Decide to ramp up your party's campaign for the forthcoming General Election
  2. Design a snazzy leaflet outlining your plans for the Chippenham Constituency
  3. Arrange delivery to every household in said Constituency
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to notice the accompanying photos are of Bradford on Avon
  5. Et Voila!
To be fair Bradford's part of the Chippenham Constituency too, but my inner imp was intrigued by two parties choosing to show an image from a much smaller town than the main one. It might turn out to be the only thing they can agree on ;)

For balance, I was going to wait and see what the other parties came up with before writing this post. However, they're being much tardier with their leaflets - I've had these two for ages.

Chippenham already has form with its election publicity backfiring despite the current Constituency only being in existence for this and the previous election. It was the subject for How Advertising Works #15 and #16 in 2010, which included the spectacular hand delivery of election material for a Constituency... in Dorset.

In its previous incarnation as a Rotten Borough, Chippenham had a young Sir Robert Peel as an MP in 1812-17, before he went on to 'invent' the police force amongst other things. William Henry Fox Talbot - one of the great pioneers of photography - was MP in 1832-35.

It's clear Chippenham's a key political target for this election as we had our first doorstep canvas visit last August. I told them they were too early at the time as we hadn't had Christmas yet. 

BTW I have no affiliation or particular leaning towards either of these parties. That's probably why Mr Cameron's been writing to me personally every few weeks ;)

Monday, 23 March 2015

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden

A view of The Baroque Garden part of the Painting Paradise exhibition at The Queen's Gallery
A look at the the Baroque style - characterised by increased formality and a greater use of water in garden design

On Friday when most of the nation was craning its collective neck to see the partial solar eclipse, I instead found myself in the poshest of rooms without windows.

I was at a Bloggers Breakfast kindly set up by the Royal Collection Trust to preview their latest exhibition, Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden. This is at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace from now, until Sunday 11th October 2015.

My visit turned out to be a real treat, from the coffee served by a member of the Royal Household through to the fascinating curator's tour which provided an accompanying slice of garden history without tears.

Amongst the delights are a number of firsts to view: the first portrait of a gardener (Jacopo Cennini, gardener to one of the Medicis, dated 1523); Ruralia Commoda, the first gardening manual - owned by Henry VIII - which contains detailed instructions for both landowner and gardener alike; and the first real English garden captured on canvas, viewed through the arches behind Henry VIII and family at Whitehall Palace.

A view of the Henry VIII and family portrait on show at the Painting Paradise exhibition
Henry VIII with Jane Seymour, prince Edward and princesses Mary and Elizabeth at Whitehall Palace

This is also "Politics in a Picture" as the painting depicts Henry with his family in a physically impossible gathering as Jane Seymour died shortly after giving birth to prince Edward. The painting's symbolism emphasises Henry's power - a statement to show off the Tudor dynasty and exert his right to be king of England.

Today gardening is often considered too nice to be political, yet politics and the garden was a central path running through this must-see exhibition, especially the tussle between William of Orange and France's Louis XIV. I didn't know the race to grow the first pineapple was so charged with political meaning.

At least this was a gentler battle than going to war, though we learned a king's desire to express his superiority through a garden could still be fraught with danger. For example, dozens of Swiss mercenaries were killed by the release of marsh gas when the estate was cleared to form the gardens at Versailles.

Painting Paradise: A selection of images from the exhibition
A small selection of images from the exhibition

There are 7 key themes which take us from the gardens of Persia of around 500 BC through to those of Victorian times: Paradise, The Sacred Garden, The Renaissance Garden, The Baroque Garden, The Botanic Garden, The Landscape Garden and the Horticultural Garden.

In addition, The Garden Inside shows how horticulture is depicted on and influenced household objects and exquisite decorative pieces. Finally The Language of Flowers looks at this popular trend from Victorian times.

There are around 150 paintings, drawings, books, furniture, jewellery and a host of other fine objects to see. It's a rich and fascinating resource which merits more than one visit, so make sure you get your ticket endorsed into a 1-year pass whilst you're there. It's well worth timing your visit to coincide with a curator's tour too.

NB The Royal Collection Trust is a blogger friendly organisation - they've arranged breakfast previews at a number of their previous exhibitions. It's worth keeping an eye on their Bloggers Resource page for details of future events. There was also a live display on the day of the #PaintingParadise twitterstream which added a touch of modernity to accompany the historical artefacts.

Picture of the book accompanying the Painting Paradise exhibition
I couldn't resist getting the book :)
You may also like:

Anxious Gardener's view of the morning's activities
Writer in the Garden went on a different day, but had an equally wonderful time

Tim Richardson in The Telegraph

Maev Kennedy in The Guardian

Discover Your Painted Paradise - a quiz from the exhibition's website

Friday, 20 March 2015

Let's Visit a Real Garden or Two

The entrance to Susan Tomlinson's Bicycle Garden
The entrance to The Bicycle Garden - thanks to Susan Tomlinson for letting me use her photo :) 
I'm showing you Susan's garden today because we've been having quite a conversation after her post earlier this week on Rules for visiting a private garden. By private she means ones like hers and mine.

Her gist is that visitors should be nice, be kind. I agree because I easily give myself 10 times the amount of criticism compared to anything a visitor might care to give. Susan's bravely illustrated her post with a picture of her garden's entrance, the kind of scene which might lead to the sort of negative remarks she talks about.

I saw that picture differently - it really made me want to visit Susan's garden because a) it has clues about her lifestyle and gardening in a different climate and b) I sense a kindred spirit. Here's why...

The side entrance to my back garden
Early Wednesday morning this week at VP Gardens

Can you see the similarities? Admittedly the area bordering our side path is mainly my utility and cold frame area, but I really should tidy it up a bit. NB that splash of red you can see at the end is the 'Anna's Red' Hellebore I told you about for January's Blooms Day. You can also see a bit of the public land next door which I often talk about.

And so to our conversation. After some general talk about how some visitors like to criticise, Susan asked a very important question:

On a related note, do you find that since you blog about gardening, people expect your garden to be perfect? Even *all year*? A bit of pressure there.

Ha - because I blog about gardening, my garden is even worse! I'm trying to spend more time offline this year so I can reclaim the garden.

At one time I did strive for perfection, but that all changed when I was off work with stress 10 years ago. I was shocked to find my manager's vision of 'what a good job looks like' was way below my standard and so I'd been wasting a lot of my time.

And whilst achieving perfection might just about be possible in a job, it's nigh on impossible with a garden except perhaps for the most fleeting of moments. There are far too many changing variables to take into account and besides, life's too short.

Instead I prefer to enjoy the moment and find pleasure in my garden's positives. The negatives will be taken care of - eventually. I've realised I have very little talent gardenwise, though I have improved - blogging about it has taught me loads and I'll carry on learning - but I also know my favourite garden is mine. Susan agrees:

Exactly. My garden is the most beautiful garden in the world. Warts and all. My reply:

It has to be - why else spend all that time and attention on it? Hurray for our gardens - warts and all.

And someday Walu and I are going to come to England. I promise to drop by your garden unannounced and demand a tour! 

And I'll be delighted to see you both! Hopefully I will have shifted the huge 1 tonne sack of conifer mulch on the patio by then ;)

A view of my back garden from the patio
Fresh growth is springing up this week and I'm finally using that bag of mulch you can just about see
on the right. I've spared you the sight of my washing - I'm celebrating its first venture outside this year

You're also welcome to come and visit my garden at any time - but let's just tiptoe past the shed on the way round shall we?

Victoria is the perfect garden visitor - she hasn't batted an eyelid at that huge bag of mulch on the patio. Instead we've enjoyed each other's company and simply being in the garden.

That's how it should be. Real Gardens. Real People. Good Times :)

You may also like:

VP's Open Garden - this separate blog from 2008 shows what the garden's like when I do look after it properly.

By a spooky coincidence Fran Sorin wrote a thoughtful post earlier this week about her experience of opening her garden formally to visitors. She tells us about what happened when it became less of a showpiece and more of a real garden.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

GBBD: The Onset of Yellow


Last Monday, I talked about March being noted for its yellow and its onset has indeed started here at VP Gardens. It's a dull day here, but the daffodils manage effortlessly to cheer up the gloom.

Walking around the garden this morning, I noted how much better the more dainty daffodils looked compared with their larger, more blowsy cousins. They're also less likely to be felled by the fickle winds of March. The blackthorn blossom is about to burst too - we may yet have another go at winter.

I'm meeting up with Victoria later to go round the Abbey Gardens which open for the NGS today. As the house is up for sale, this year might be the last opportunity for us to visit. She also has some spare Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin', which she is kindly giving to me - hurray.

I can't think of a better thing to do for Blooms Day than to meet up with a garden blogging buddy :)

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Plant Profiles: Hebe

Picture of Hebe 'Bronzy Baby' in a brown pot in my garden
My potted Hebe 'Bronzy Baby' after its trim. 


The continued good weather means I've been able to crack on with the annual spring cut-back here at VP Gardens. It's even been warm enough to sit outside, which in turn drew my attention to the pictured Hebe 'Bronzy Baby' next to my garden bench.


I'd always thought hebes were the large shrubs dripping with flowers often seen at seasides, but our move to VP Gardens soon re-educated me. Firstly I discovered the tight evergreen dome of H rakaiensis, which served as a neat and relatively care-free version of a box ball, and then I discovered the smaller-leaved, variegated kinds like the one pictured above.

These grow to around 2-3 feet high and provide a neat foil to some of my pots. Spring colour is green with a white edging, then the cool of winter turns them contrasting shades of bronze, pink or red depending on the plant chosen. That colour change adds to their interest, particularly if - like me - you've chosen one which is a bit shy to flower.

They can get a bit leggy, hence my spotting their need for attention. There's usually plenty of fresh growth near the base of the plant, so it's just a matter of a quick snip back of the legginess to bring the rest blinking into the sunshine.

Part of this year's Reclamation project (which I talked about on Monday), has the delicious prospect of buying new plants for the large bed at the bottom of the garden. I'll consider some of the other smaller-leaved hebes available to provide some winter colour and I'll choose ones which do actually flower in summer. They could also give some protective cool around the feet of the clematis I've decided to keep.

Let the step sitting commence!

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Cultivation Notes


Hebe foliage
Click on the pic to see the
foliage in more detail
The sheer number and variety of hebes means they're a versatile garden shrub. I grow mine in containers, but they could easily be used as edging and their larger cousins used to provide evergreen structure at the back of the border.

They're suited to most soils and most of them are hardy down to -10oC, so they may need a spot of fleece and straw mulch if we have one of our fiercer winters. They can be grown in sun or shade, though they may become leggy when grown in shade - or even in full sunshine as my potted example shows!

On the whole, hebes fall into my "tough as old boots" category, so don't require a lot of care. Their flowers are attractive to bees and the blooms should be deadheaded to promote more.

Propagation can be via seeds or semi-hardwood cuttings taken in summer, though see the notes in the Latin Without Tears section below about cultivars with Plant Breeders Rights.

Further Reading and Collection locations


  • There is a Hebe Society which "promotes the cultivation and conservation of hebes and other New Zealand native plants". It was founded in 1985 and their website has an A-Z, which describes 254 hebes.
  • The National Collection of Hebes is found at Plumpton College, near Lewes. The Hebe Society website also points to a number of gardens with good collections. It mentions Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset being particularly good for the smaller leaved hebes like the ones described in this post.

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Latin without tears


According to Wikipedia there are over 90 species of Hebe, most of which hail from New Zealand. The genus is named after the Greek goddess of youth.

Hebes were also known as shrubby veronicas and H. 'Bronzy Baby' is an example of a cultivar i.e. a cultivated variety produced via a plant breeding programme. I've yet to have its parentage confirmed (though the author of this reference thinks its a variegated form of another hebe cultivar), so do let me know if you can add anything to this post.

Cultivars are designated by the Genus name, followed by the cultivar name in single quotes as shown above. They're usually increased by propagation (as they're often sterile or any seed produced won't come true).

My hebe has Plant Breeders Rights (aka PBR or PVR) attached to it i.e. it's illegal to propagate the plant for sale (including from seed) without a licence granted by the original breeder. 

PBRs are usually enforced for a number of years in order to allow the breeder to profit from the costs of bringing the cultivar to market. The rights may also extend to the plant's naming.

It's interesting to note that I bought my hebes labelled as H. 'Bronzy Baby', yet the power of Google has highlighted there's H. 'Bronze Baby'. It seems this is now the official name of the plants I bought and 'Bronzy Baby' is designated as a synonym
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Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

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Monday, 9 March 2015

A Purple Patch


Saturday was the first day that really felt like spring as there was a glorious light and a real warmth outside. I managed to spend a comfortable time tending to my garden's needs rather than retreating indoors after an hour to thaw myself with mug of hot chocolate*.

March tends to be a month noted for the colour yellow, but it was the fat patches of purple crocus which made me reach for my camera. They're not so profuse as in previous years; probably a combination of thieving squirrels and constriction by the encroaching ivy from the public land.

The ivy's taken over quite a bit of the garden whilst I wasn't looking, along with some wicked looking bramble which hopped over the fence and sneakily anchored itself behind a large shrub before popping into view.

I've been struggling to think of my summary word for 2015. I've got it now - it's Reclamation.

* though my mug of hot chocolate was welcome anyway ;)

Friday, 6 March 2015

Against the Odds: Cotoneaster horizontalis

Picture of a Cotoneaster seedling growing in the tiny crack between 2 paving stones

We have several Cotoneaster horizontalis plants in the garden and just like the Unexpected Honeysuckle I wrote about for December's Blooms Day, I've never planted any of them.

Cotoneaster has had a bit of a bad press because it features in many a public planting scheme. It's tough as old boots and as you can see thrives almost anywhere. I suspect the pictured plant and the others at VP Gardens were brought to us by passing birds, possibly from the roundabout in the middle of the estate.

Another plausible explanation for the origin of the pictured plant is it's a seedling from the one which magically appeared in the large planter by the front door. Despite its proximity to our boots when we arrive home, it's definitely surviving against the odds.

I think the photo reminds us of its virtues. It has glossy green leaves and an attractive habit. In the spring it bears a profusion of creamy flowers which the local honeybees love, followed by bright red berries which the birds fight over in autumn. Its survival strategy is sound.

Whilst last week's Cotoneaster was a different species, the emergence of this week's example from the tiniest of cracks hints at how little space is needed for just three plants to thrive and grow to clothe a house.

Update:

Spade and Dagger has commented about this Cotoneaster being placed on the invasive species list along with the likes of Buddleja.

Here's what Plantlife's website has to say on the subject and this is the GB Non-Native Secretariat's ID sheet which confirms its listing under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, England & Wales.

This means it's an offence to plant or cause the plant to grow in the wild, though it looks like it might be OK to plant it in your garden. How the law stands if it escapes from there is unclear - does this count as causing the plant to grow in the wild? It might be best not to plant it, to be on the safe side - my investigation of this issue continues...

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Some Thoughts on #TheDress and Gardening

The colourful garden at Wildside, Devon
Keith Wiley's colourful garden at Wildside on a rainy day in July.
It's here I learned the importance of how green can provide balance in a colour scheme. 

A photograph of blue and black dress which looked gold and white to some caused a storm of controversy and a top trending #TheDress hashtag across social media last week. It even made the national news.

I put my thoughts to one side on how camera and computer settings, plus viewing angles can alter what we see, and had a think about the use of colour in our gardens.

My interest in this subject started not long after I'd met Threadspider. We were looking at a piece of turquoise cloth one day, which she clearly saw as green and I as blue. In that instant I realised how a simple difference in our eyes could alter our perception of the world. This was also discussed in relation to #TheDress, particularly how the number of cones * in the eye's structure can alter the range of colours we can see.

Apparently Christopher Lloyd was colour blind ** and he was often criticised for his combination of particular shades of pink and yellow at Great Dixter. I wonder how much his colour blindness altered what he saw in that combination. I hope it wasn't as drastic as it was for my red-green colour blind colleague, who always saw my pink and yellow checked dress as a muddy brown.

Over the years I've learned to keep any criticism at bay whenever I flinch at what I see as a particularly gaudy colour scheme, or the use of a colour I don't particularly like. After all, who's to say I'm right?

* = if anyone has a better written article on this subject, let me know. For example, the remarks about bees aren't accurate, and the accuracy of the online test shown can be affected by computer settings, but the general points made in this article are valid.

** = thanks to Catherine Horwood for the information.

You may also like:

I wrote about Colour Theory in Garden Design for BBC Gardening many moons ago. I realised then just how vast this subject is and how many factors affect what each of us sees. They include: our education; what's in fashion; our cultural background; the impact of light, the weather and seasons; where we are in the world; our mood and other psychological factors; our experiences; our age; and a whole host of other things. It's endlessly fascinating and I'd love to make a full study of it sometime.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

GBMD: Snowdrop

Snowdrops at Welford Park and extract from a poem by John Armstrong called Snowdrop
Snowdrops at Welford Park, late February 2015. 

I discovered the above poem recently when I visited Hodsock Priory - John Armstrong wrote it especially for Chelsea Physic Garden. The poem's last 2 lines seemed fitting for today's Muse Day, seeing we've just entered the the first month of spring.

Today's the day when many of the snowdrop gardens close their doors for the season and we'll have to make do with our photographs and memories until next year. But then there are crocuses and daffodils peeping out the soil in greeting, and so our gardening year moves on to other delights.
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