Whatever the Weather

The elements just keep on giving this year. In the space of three months we’ve had record cold and record heat; now record rainfall, at least in some parts of the country. As for East Kent, we’ve largely swerved the dramatic thunderstorms that have squatted like sumo wrestlers over parts of the UK, not shifting, weighing the atmosphere down with heat and humidity. But we have had fog – days of it – lingering not only along the coast but inland too. Not cold, penetrating fog, but something more akin to the steam you get in a bathroom after a hot shower. I put my tillandsias outside two weeks ago and they are loving every misty moment. In fact, most plants are. It’s not ideal for Mediterranean plants, but since we’ve had almost no rain they are not too fussed.

The week began with what’s become an annual Bank Holiday pilgrimage to Kingsdown, near Walmer. It’s one of those unique and precious spots that instantly convince you there’s no-where more beautiful in the world than where you are right now. Part of the village is built at the back of a wide shingle beach, just beyond the tides’ reach. Facing the sea is a super little pub called The Zetland Arms. It’s named after a ship that foundered off Ramsgate, The Earl of Zetland. After lunch, we strolled around the corner to admire the cottage gardens along South Road, brimming with Santolina, Centranthus, cerastium, and fennel. They are utterly joyful, augmented with a cardoon here, an olive tree there, but basically a ribbon of drought-tolerant, sun-worshipping loveliness. I doubt much maintenance is required. These are the right plants in the right place and that is why they are so glorious.

We undertook the three-mile walk along the rising chalk cliffs to the Old Coastguard Station, only to find that the café was closed and for sale (a snip at £1.5M if you fancy it). Neither the dog nor the children were amused at the lack of refreshment, but on the way back we stopped outside one of Kingsdown’s clifftop villas for a charity tea, so all was well. It is a little early for the chalk grassland to be in its prime, but there was plentiful hawthorn, elder, drifts of common sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) and hearty clumps of rosy garlic (Allium roseum – top row, second from right).

Going back to a five o’clock alarm call was a shock and the weather immediately turned sour. At Broadstairs station, my normal view of the sea sparkling in the distance was obscured by thick fog for three days on the trot.

Meanwhile, the carpenters arrived to reverse forty years of wear and tear to the workshop doors. They had them looking almost as good as new in the space of two days. I now have to paint them so that they’re ready for my gardening opening in August. They’ll be returned to off-black on the outside (Farrow and Ball ‘Railings’) and The Watch House’s signature green on the inside (Farrow and Ball ‘Vert de Terre’). The third job is to cut a new door in the side of the workshop so I can get in from the garden. This is a messy job and has already covered everything in a thick layer of brick-dust. With any luck, it will all be done and dusted (literally) by the end of next week. Despite all the noise and activity, a delightful family of blackbirds nesting in the passageway are carrying on as normal. There are five chicks, keeping mummy and daddy busy from dawn until dusk.

This weekend I need to get a wiggle on and finish potting a number of plants into larger containers. I am willing the daffodil foliage to die down so that I can shift these pots into the workshop for their summer rest and space out other plants in readiness for their imminent growth spurt. I have resigned myself to not having time to dig out all the concrete and brick to create a border in the Gin & Tonic Garden, which means another summer of watering pots, albeit larger ones. It’s not ideal, but once they fill out they will be almost invisible. It’s also time to start feeding in earnest. For flowering plants, I tend to use tomato food so as to encourage flowers rather than more foliage. As for the tomatoes they are in rude health: surrounded by marigolds – French and African – they make me feel terribly nostalgic. The scene and the scent transport me back to the cedar lean-to greenhouse my dad had when I was growing up in Plymouth.

Next week I’m in Derbyshire for the second RHS Chatsworth Flower Show. One thing is for sure, the weather on press day cannot be any worse than it was last year, and let’s hope the traffic congestion has been sorted out too. Keep checking back for news and views on the show gardens and other exhibits at this wonderful show. In the meantime, make the most of your garden this weekend, it’s bound to be blooming lovely! TFG.


Reflections on a Busy Week

What a rollercoaster ride last week was. It began with visits to two very fine private gardens, open by appointment for the National Garden Scheme, and ended with a frantic day of potting up and bedding out in my own garden at The Watch House. In between came the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show in Derbyshire and a whirlwind tour of Coton Manor Gardens in Northamptonshire. The days had all become a blur by Sunday. Writing this post, it’s been a pleasure reflecting on what was a happy, varied and sunny week: the sort I’d like to enjoy many more of. England is magical in May and early June, which is why I like to take most of my holidays then. I return to work today looking forward to a well-earned rest. How lucky we are to live in a country so blessed with beautiful countryside and great gardens. I sometimes have to remind myself of that.

All the locations I visited last week will be getting their own posts in due course (perhaps not Newport Pagnell Motorway Services), but in the meantime, here’s a taste of my adventures.  First stop was The Orchard, home to Mark Lane who you may recognize from the BBC’s Gardeners’ World. When not on our screens, Mark is a busy and successful garden designer and writer. He made his name in publishing before an accident and subsequent diagnosis with spina bifida meant that he required a wheelchair to get about. Mark re-trained and has never looked back. As one might expect, The Orchard is skilfully adapted for wheelchair access, but the design is not compromised by this. Mark’s aesthetic is contemporary, softened by varied, multi-layered planting. There’s a strong emphasis on structure, interesting perennials, and plants which attract wildlife into the garden. The Orchard is open by appointment to small groups of four or less, between July 1st and August 31st, 2018. Individuals are also very welcome. Mark and his partner Jasen are charming, enthusiastic hosts, making my visit a thoroughly enjoyable one.

On the same day, I visited Marshborough Farmhouse near Sandwich (pictured above). Rarely does one come across a private garden of this caliber in terms of plantsman ship and standards of gardening. Quite simply it blew my socks off. I left wanting to return again and again, bowled over by the owners’ knowledge and commitment to their garden, which is all-consuming. From 2.5 acres of Kentish farmland, Sarah and David Ash have gently fashioned a garden of great character. Their collection of plants, many of which have been raised from seed or cuttings, is stupendous and will delight anyone with a passion for plants. Unlike my garden, which is on chalk, the soil here is slightly acidic, sandy loam and very sharply drained. This makes it possible to grow all sorts of Australian and New Zealand natives, as well as Mediterranean plants. I don’t mind admitting that I was completely in awe of this garden and returned home feeling that I must try harder. Visits for groups of ten or more can be arranged between the 18th and 29th of June 2018, and again between the 20th and 31st of August. I would heartily recommend taking a notebook and pencil as I guarantee you will encounter plants you’ve never seen before.

Whilst at Chatsworth I managed to sneak up to the walled gardens, located on a gentle slope high above the big house and with a magical view of Capability Brown’s expansive landscape park. The hanging woods behind march right up to the mellow stone walls, lilac rhododendrons spilling bountifully over. This is the sort of place I imagine gardeners might go if they qualified for heaven. Gardener and guardian angel Becky Crowley presides cheerfully over a cutting garden packed with peonies, Hesperis, irises, geums, and roses, alongside generous plots of fruit and vegetables. Much longer required here on my next visit.

When I’m traveling cross-country I try not to waste an opportunity to stop off at a garden en route, especially when I have a car that I can pack with plants. The night before my journey I Googled “Gardens near the M1” and up popped Coton Manor Gardens. I’ve been researching and visiting gardens for over 25 years, yet somehow I’d never heard of this one: remiss of me, yet what a fabulous find. The garden at Coton Manor possesses the kind of quality, charm, and personality that is lacking in some better-known gardens. It has developed slowly and organically around a handsome house, resulting in a layout which is both unexpected and exciting. The use of water in the garden is especially ingenious, with pretty streams, pools, and rills that could easily inspire smaller gardens. A flock of placid, coral-pink flamingos is a point of fascination for young and old. The plant nursery is full of good quality, home-grown plants and naturally, I succumbed to its charms as well. Mine was a rose called ‘Pearl Drift’, Iris chronographs (black form), Viola ‘Irish Molly’, Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’, Dahlia ‘Ragged Robin’ and Agapanthus ‘Silver Moon’. Of course, I needed them all, no question. My greatest regret is that I didn’t have time to stop for lunch, which looked good. If it comes to a choice between buying plants and feeding myself, buying plants will always come first. This is a possible but very expensive diet plan.

I was compelled to go back to work for two days before the weekend began. I love my job, but at times like these, I’d rather be outside getting my hands dirty. Saturday was a bit of a write-off as I had made plans to spend time with friends. On Sunday I set about the Jungle Garden with a remarkable amount of vigor given I couldn’t actually remember getting home the night before (I do know I was in bed by midnight and I appear to have eaten toast and marmalade before doing so).

I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the task in hand, but quickly found that there’s nothing like getting stuck in to make a job seem less daunting. In the space of eight hours, I managed to plant out my aeoniums (a task which requires some delicacy now that some are over 5ft tall), half a dozen colocasia and trays of superb coleus named ‘Henna’. I also put some effort into grouping my potted plants so that they can start to mingle and knit together. I reckon on them needing a good two months to look established before my garden opening in early August. Ideally, visitors won’t be able to detect any pots at all by then and the plants will have formed parallel banks of flower and foliage. TFG.