Author Archives: The Constant Gardener

About The Constant Gardener

Head Gardener at Horatio's Garden, Salisbury and at The College of Matrons in Salisbury Cathedral Close.

Chairs and Chelsea

A most enjoyable day yesterday, as the guest of Gaze Burvill at their home in rural East Hampshire, just a stone’s throw from Gilbert White’s Selborne. Simon Burvill, Managing Director of the company, and his team were previewing some of their new outdoor furniture to an invited audience, and I was there to represent Horatio’s Garden. Gaze Burvill have been generous supporters of the Horatio’s Garden project from the outset, and the relationship continues as we expand into new gardens in Glasgow and Stoke Mandeville. The company celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

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Simon Burvill, describing some of the complex design forms which can be achieved using his workshop’s state-of-the-art equipment.

We were treated to a fascinating tour of the company’s workshops, which combine traditional craftsmanship of the highest standard with astonishing hi-tech machinery and design facilities. The attention to detail in the furniture, as well as the company’s commitment to sustainability – heat is provided at the workshops using wood-shavings from the production process, for example – are hugely impressive. The beautiful oak, much of it sourced from France (where the tradition of ‘farming’ trees for furniture is still strong), has a scent which fill the workshops. If I closed my eyes and inhaled gently, I could have been back in the wood-turning workshop where my grandfather worked in my childhood.

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As well as seeing the production process in action, we were given a preview of this year’s Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea. One stand, sponsored by Gaze Burvill, is designed by Aralia Garden Design and Patricia Fox spoke about her journey from brief to finished design, and how Gaze Burvill’s furniture has been showcased in the garden. Catherine Macdonald of Landform Consultants was present too, speaking about her Artisan Garden design, sponsored by Seedlip. Her design incorporates a range of references to 17th century apothecaries’ manuals alongside the process of distillation, and the ingredients which go into Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirits.

The other Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea 2017 were on display too, with sketches, plans and planting schemes to pore over. As one person said, it’s very helpful to be able to see the gardens on paper before the show, as you can see the subtle changes that occur when designs are being implemented, and also have a clearer idea of what to look out for amidst the whirl of the event.

Thanks to all at Gaze Burvill for a thoroughly enjoyable day.

 

 

Twitter-free gardening

Now, before you all complain, this blog will ‘auto-post’ to Twitter without me going anywhere near the little blue bird, so I don’t personally feel that this constitutes a breach of Lent Twitter-fast.

A week and a bit in, and my withdrawal from the Twittersphere is going ok. I do miss some folk’s tweets (not HIS, obviously). And I do sometimes find myself with a bon mot or witty riposte to an item on the radio, but with nowhere to put it. But apart from that, the time gained is a boon. More importantly, the freedom from an unhealthy chatter of gloom and near-despair about the state of the world, is truly liberating and almost certainly good for my state of mind. Yes, social media allow you to feel part of a wide online community of like-minded souls, but given the dire state of the world right now, I’m enjoying not knowing what’s going on every minute of every day.

Another thing I do miss is the opportunity to post lovely photographs of the gardens I work in, most especially the thoroughly photogenic Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury. But that’s what Instagram is for.

Isn’t it?

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Frosty January

This January was far colder and drier than any of the past few years. Although we’ve had no snow here, we have enjoyed several stretches of cold, bright days and frosty nights.

The practice of leaving perennials uncut through the winter has a number of benefits – and we follow it in Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury. Cleve West’s design includes a good number of tall perennials – Aruncus dioicus ‘Horatio’, Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, Aster umbellatus and others, as well as the tall grass Stipa gigantea. None of these are cut-back until the early spring, when bulbs start to push through, and dead foliage begins to turn to unappealing brown mush. The benefits are several, and chief among them is that these plants provide food and shelter for all manner of beneficial creatures. From the House Sparrows dangling precariously to catch the last seeds from Stipa heads, to the myriad insects and mini-beasts which live in and around the dead stems – and in turn feed the resident robins and dunnocks – the rewards are significant.

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However, the other benefit is aesthetic. Every January the gardening press is full of delicious images of frosted seedheads twinkling in the low winter sunlight. And most winters, the damp, dull reality in our gardens falls miserably short of the ideal. But not this year. I’ve lost count of the mornings that I’ve arrived at work and gone straight outside with my camera to capture the frost and rime-coated plants. It seems hard to take a bad picture when everything is sugar coated in white and so beautifully lit.

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And the beginning of February has been wet and windy, flattening a lot of the taller stems and turning foliage to mush.

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This was our cue to begin cutting-back in earnest, clearing and tidying, and in the process allowing the emerging bulbs to have light and air.

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Christmas Reading

Gardening doesn’t leave as much time as it should for catching up on reading. Yet gardening books and journals are the way for most of us to keep abreast of developments in planting style, garden design and general horticulture.

Every year I make two mistakes. Firstly I imagine that I’ll get through lots of reading on holiday in the summer. It never happens, of course. I go away with a pile of magazines and books, and end up looking at few of them – being too busy doing all the other things one does on holiday. One of which, of course, is visiting gardens – the only opportunity I really get. Norfolk, where we have taken our family fortnight every year for more than a decade, offers a good few excellent gardens – so there’s plenty to see. To say nothing of the birdlife – my other great enthusiasm – which keeps us occupied in between fish and chips, ice creams and sitting on the beach. Norfolk has a huge amount to recommend it as a holiday venue – our children have known nothing else, and don’t complain or show signs of tiring – but all those books come back largely unread.

The second mistake is similar (identical), but at the other end of the year. I have an idealised vision of Christmas, stretching lazily from Christmas Eve en famille at the cathedral (having finished our annual watching of John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights’) through to some time in mid-January. Candlelight, log fire, armchair, and that pile of books again – this time coupled with all the Christmas issues of gardening magazines. And, yet again, it fails to happen. Not because I’m not enjoying myself, but because I am busy doing loads of other equally enjoyable things.

The garden reading I do get through in the year is – like any other reading I do – squeezed into the minutes between bedtime and sleep, or snatched over breakfast before anyone else is up (a good time for magazine browsing), or possibly a few stolen moments on a day when it really is too wet to be outdoors.

There’s another error I commit annually as well: asking for more gardening books for Christmas. I never learn. In case you’re looking for some inspiration, here are three books I’d ask for this Christmas if I didn’t already have them…

Rhapsody In Green: A Novelist, An Obsession, A Laughably Small Excuse For A Garden, by Charlotte Mendelson (Kyle Books). Already a pick in many garden writers’ lists, this is a fantastic book about what you can do in next-to-no space, if you allow yourself to give in to a fanatical love of plants- specifically, edible crops. Why have one variety of tomato if you can have five? It’s not remotely a ‘how to’ book – but it’s infectious, engaging, funny, beautifully written (Mendelson is a novelist by trade) – and also a lovely book in design and feel.

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The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination, by Richard Mabey (Profile). Mabey is the true heir of naturalist-writers such as Gilbert White (whose biography he wrote), WH Hudson and Richard Jefferies. I’d gladly sacrifice most of the (so-called) ‘new nature writing’ if I could hold on to Richard Mabey. His latest book is a fascinating collection of writing about the relationships between plants, people, art and history. Tim Dee described the book in a Guardian review as “the summation of a lifetime of looking at plants and reflecting on them” – what more, given Mabey’s depth of knowledge and insight, could one ask for?

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Container Theme Gardens, by Nancy J. Ondra (Storey). An absolute gem if you have planters to work with -as we do at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury – and want to make the best of them. Ondra sets herself a strict rule of using only five plants, but manages to produce some fantastic and unusual combinations to suit styles and seasons. Sadly, her ‘Hummingbird Haven’ (Begonia boliviensis, Cuphea ignea, Fuchsia, Canna and Calibrachoa) won’t entice the diminutive birds across the Atlantic (the author is from Pennsylvania) – but would work brilliantly as a tropical scheme all the same.

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Finally, a journal to recommend. Rake’s Progress is a rather glorious thing – apparently available in selected shops, but easily obtained direct from the publisher www.rakesprogressmagazine.com. It’s full of fairly sumptuous photography and terrific words – all printed on heavyweight paper, which makes it a ‘coffee table magazine’ if such there is. Treat yourself to a subscription.

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Farewell to peat

The environmental damage caused by the commercial extraction of peat is now both well-documented, and undeniable. The UK alone uses a staggering 3 million cubic metres of peat each year, 60% of which is imported from Ireland. And yet, until the 1970s, no-one used peat in gardening. Home-made compost, and loam-based mixes, were the only option – and plants still grew perfectly well. Peat is supposedly appreciated by the large growers for its predictability and its low cost (in cash, if not environmental, terms). It lends itself to the commercial mass production of plants – particularly those plants then left to wither and die in their hundreds outside DIY sheds and supermarkets. But the environmental impact alone does not justify the continued use of peat as a growing medium by ordinary gardeners.

What, then, are the alternatives? I have used ‘New Horizons’ peat-free compost for a number of years, and both seem to be perfectly good. At Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury we are in the process of switching to peat-free growing for plants which we either use to re-stock the garden, or sell at our events. Last Friday we had a delivery of Sylvagrow peat-free compost, which we’ll be using from now on. This compost has been endorsed by the RHS and has come out top in Which? surveys of composts for both containers and raising young plants. It is 100% peat-free, and doesn’t contain any green waste: it’s made from bark, wood fibre and small amount of coir – all from sustainable and traceable sources. With credentials like those, I am confident that it will make a big difference to our plants.

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Of course, one of the keys to all compost use is not to treat it as a single substance. ‘Multi-purpose’ never means multi-purpose in quite the straightforward way many gardeners would like to think. Compost always needs to be mixed with grit, loam, leaf-mould, perlite, sharp sand and the like to produce the best possible medium for different kinds of growing. Seeds need a growing environment quite different from that which suits cuttings, and the compost needs to reflect that. I am also keen on sieving composts, as even the best will invariably contain the odd lumps which need removing – certainly for most seed-sowing it’s essential to have a layer of sieved compost to sow into.

Similarly, the drainage and nutrient-retention properties of peat-free composts are not the same as those of peat. It tends to benefit from more regular watering than peat (little and often), but also to need the addition of grit or sand to aid drainage in winter. If dropping the use of peat requires a little thought and changing of gardening habits, then that seems a small price to pay.

 

 

New Blog, New Beginnings

September marks the beginning of the new school year, as well as the turn from summer to autumn. It is a time of change, of new beginnings, and of taking stock: far more so – for me, at least – than New Year itself. Having grown up in a household of teachers, and having been governed by the academic calendar myself for much of my life, there is something essential about this time of year. It is a time of nostalgia, as well as a season of looking forward.

My new beginning has been the wonderful opportunity to take on the position of Head Gardener at Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury. The garden, designed by Chelsea award-winner Cleve West, is adjacent to (indeed, part of) the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Injuries Unit at Salisbury District Hospital. It provides garden therapy, and a restorative environment of peace and quiet, for patients who are adjusting to life-changing spinal injuries.

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Having served my time in private gardens of one sort and another, the chance to work alongside passionate and committed volunteers, to the benefit of patients and their families, is an absolutely amazing thing. To do so in an award-winning, beautifully designed and gloriously planted garden is horticulturally even more exciting.

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For one thing, gardening can be a very solitary business. Not that I mind altogether – in fact I have written before about the pleasures of working in one’s own company – but talking to fellow volunteers, patients and other visitors on a regular basis is more than welcome.

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And here is a garden which bears very much the imprint of its designer. This is, and will remain, ‘a Cleve West garden’. It is my job to act as custodian of Cleve’s vision, whilst taking the garden forward. Having talked to Cleve about this, he is adamant that the garden cannot remain static – but there is an ethos, a spirit and a sense of place to be retained whatever changes the future may bring.

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I hope you will want to join me on the journey.

 

The sculptures featured are by Dorset-based sculptor Simon Gudgeon.