Monday, 11 December 2006

Pineapple sage

The pineapple sage is in full flower in the greenhouse, unseen by visitors now that the garden is closed for winter. Its vivid red is almost fluorescent against the white back wall, its flowers on stems that reach way above my head. Its luscious flowers bloom even on Christmas Day, when every other plant in the unheated greenhouse has been cut hard back - passion flowers, asarina, campsis radicans, lemon verbena - all taken back to their main stems. Pineapple sage is not a plant for a small pot! If it is grown in a pot at all, it needs the largest size you can give it, and is happiest when growing directly in the greenhouse soil. The slightly hairy leaves have a delicate fruity scent and can be used in making puddings, the flowers used to decorate salads at a time of the year when there is not much colour. I think that is why I value it so much; an intense, dynamic red shining out in the cold winter light.

After so much rain we had a walk down by the Tyne to see the river in its height. The footpath was gone under a swirling, foaming mass of water. There was an air of danger as we watched the river speeding along, swollen and restless, making sea waves and with a furious noise. None of the usual birds were there - it was too fast for goosander, mallard, moorhen or kingfisher. Just one woodpecker announced its prescense with its single, harsh call - its always such a giveaway - a glory to watch with its flash of red against the peeling grey white of a silver birch - an echo of the red flowers on the pineapple sage.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Gardens of Northumberland and the Borders

My sixth gardening book has just been published and Simon Fraser and I have been busy this week with book signings in local bookshops - one is planned for Sunday 10th at the National Trust garden, Wallington. There have been two full page spreads about it in the Journal and the Hexham Courant (see their website), liberally illustrated with some of Simon's pictures. I spent a year researching the book, seeing the gardens throughout the seasons to get a full understanding of each of them, and it is very exciting to see the finished product. This has been the twentieth anniversary of my garden and it has been a very busy time, so I sometimes wonder how it all got fitted in.

I had wanted to write this book for several years and it was such a delight to do. Being able to visit these great gardens, often when they were closed to the public was a dream - Manderston's vast Edwardian elegance on a brilliant, sunny-sky day, Little Sparta's complex, literary associations, Bide-a-Wee's plantsman's quarry garden and Lindisfarne's island haven. I really enjoyed meeting the Head Gardeners and comparing notes about what plants we could grow with our differing amounts of shelter - there is so much to learn from each other - especially Billy Crozier at Floors Castle garden who has worked there for 50 years. His single season borders are absolutely spectacular, the autumn 'hot' border a dazzling combination of rich reds, purples, oranges, yellows, all vibrant autumn colours. Seeing Simon's photographs now in the middle of winter reminds me of what gardening is all about.

A windy week in early December

Hearing the high winds in the night, I felt anxious about how the garden was faring - so it was with a little trepidation that I turned the heavy, old-fashioned key in the door to the walled garden. The gales were still battering the tall beech trees around the garden, but there was a calmer atmosphere within the sheltering walls. I walked round to check everything and, apart from some fleece detaching itself and getting snagged in a rose bush, there was no damage to the plants. Having had a mature laburnum tree knocked down last year, I was relieved there were no problems now; over the twenty years I have been running the garden, I have definitely noticed the worsening winds in the last few years, which I personally connect with global warming. The fleece had been protecting a fig tree - another sign that things are changing, as I would not have been able to grow this outside in Northumberland, with or without fleece, in past years.

Mistle thrushes have been making a racket with their throaty, rattling cries as they pick luscious red berries out of the yew trees. It has been a fantastic autumn for fruits of all kinds, the espalier apple trees laden, rose hips making vibrant arching shapes and hazel nuts in the hedgerows providing plenty for the red squirrels. There have always been reds in the woods at Chesters and we sometimes even see them in the garden - one autumn day, a red squirrel curled up on the lawn to sleep in the weakening sunshine. My son, Thomas, is doing the Foundation Degree course in Photography at Newcastle College and wanting to specialise in wildlife photography and this is his photograph, taken this week, of a red squirrel.