Friday, 21 December 2007

The Walled Garden in winter

For the last week we have had nightly frosts and mornings bright with hoar outlining every twig, stem and seedhead. I open the heavy wooden door onto a magical world, mysterious and altered, silent and unmoving except for the birds clustering around the feeder. I kick up some of the frozen leaf litter, turning it over for the robins and blackbirds to find food; bramblings scratch about amongst the drier leaves under the tall beech trees. With the strange distorted shapes of tender shrubs under white fleece, it's a bit like Miss Haversham's dining room. This picture of the espalier trees in the misty light conveys some of that atmosphere. It's a moment in the garden that the public never see.

With no work possible, we had a walk by the river today to see if we could spot the otter again. A few days ago, it was there, its presence given away by the goosanders flying off and then by ripples ebbing out from the bank, dark semi-circles against the bright, pale water reflecting the late afternoon sky. We saw its smooth back as it curved out of the river for a moment, sleek with water before a long line of bubbles showed it swimming away across to the far bank. Today there was no otter, just two dippers bobbing together before diving into the freezing rapids to feed, and a lone goldeneye. We did see an odd sight though; two large salmon simultaneously leaping out of the water and virtually walking on their tails like dolphins for some ten feet before flopping back in again - was it a pike or an otter that had made them do this? I'd never seen that before.

The frosty weather looks set to continue and I am glad that I have the garden well put to bed, perennials cut down, dahlias and cardoons protected by a thick layer of straw and the borders looking amazingly tidy. We'll just have to wait and see if all the plants survive, having not had such a cold spell for several winters. It's a lovely time though for winter walks and I am enjoying what feels like a 'proper winter'.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Moon gardening at Chesters

For my latest article in The Northumbrian magazine which is out this week, I have written about biodynamic gardening, a holistic system that we have used in Chesters Walled Garden's vegetable growing beds for the last two years. For organic gardeners, ‘moon gardening’ can be a natural development and I am noticing more and more references to it in magazines and papers - in The Independent last Saturday there was a piece about vineyards in the south of France producing red wines by this method. For the past two years, my husband, David, has grown all our vegetables this way, using as his guide The Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar by Maria and Matthias Thun. This yearly publication shows the optimum times for the whole seasonal gardening cycle, from sowing to harvesting, as well as pruning, maintenance and beekeeping. He finds that the discipline of sowing times is a real help to getting things done, a daily reminder of seeds to sow, plants to harvest or even the best time to cut the lawn with a view to less regrowth!

Last year a well known National Trust garden, Nymans in Sussex, used biodynamic growing for their extensive bedding. Thinking about the moon, I have added this beautiful image of the moon rising above the Chesters Walled Garden by Hexham artist, Brian Waters and it shows our espalier apple trees and the greenhouse. The Northumbrian has just celebrate its 100th isssue and 20 years of the magazine -

Monday, 19 November 2007

Garden Writers' Guild Awards Lunch in London

Last week I was down in London for the annual Garden Writers' Guild Awards lunch at the Royal Lancaster Hotel by Hyde Park. It was a cold, sunny day to walk across the park; I had a late breakfast of crisp pain au chocolate sitting by a serene Serpentine watching coots, swans and Canada geese foraging in the calm water. Light glinted behind the fountains of the Italian garden and hoof marks in Rotten Row showed where horses had been exercised earlier in the morning.

At the hotel, the room was buzzing and it was hard to hear oneself talk! There were over 450 writers, broadcasters, editors, publishers and photographers and awards were given for books, magazine articles, photography and tv programmes - a bit like the Oscars, we were only allowed to know the shortlist at the lunch with the winner in each category being announced by Chris Beardshaw. As MC he gave a serious plea for everyone to encourage youngsters to get into gardening, relating stories from his own childhood. At the Gardeners' World table there was Monty Don, Carol Klein and Joe Swift; TV Broadcast of the Year was won by the BBC for 'Grow Your Own Veg', the award accepted by producer Juliet Glaves and Carol Klein. Andrew Lawson won Photographer of the Year about which I was delighted because I love his garden photographs - they are full of integrity and feeling.

There were so many there that I never managed to meet up with the people I was hoping to see, such as Sandy Felton who had also travelled down from the north and runs this website - On it there are books for sale, news on new products, designers, gardens to visit etc. and like me she also writes a garden blog.

Walking back across the park in the gloaming, with a golden light creating a halo behind the Albert Memorial, was made even more atmospheric by the exotic screeches of the resident parakeets flying between the trees! It was a world away from the wide, quiet spaces of Northumberland.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Pruning the vine

The greenhouse is looking beautifully tidy now that much of the foliage has been cut back; plants trained against the white wall have been pruned before their leaves dropped to save on clearing up work! It was a delightfully scented job, cutting the lemon verbena right back to its main stems, the balm of gilead to ground level (how I love its aromatic, antiseptic smelling leaves), reducing passion flower to its snaking vine, keeping the myrtles within bounds. Of the plants left unpruned, the pineapple sage is spared so that we can enjoy its vivid red flowers in deep winter - see blog photo from last winter.

A major job each year is pruning the huge grapevine which runs all the length of the greenhouse. There are always so many grapes that I let a home winemaker take them away. There's a photo of them on this interesting and constantly updated blog by Di Overton - - along with others of the walled garden that she took this July. I usually do the pruning myself but this autumn I was helped by my Spanish friend Francisco who grew up on a vineyard near Valencia. It's wonderful to watch him confidently wielding the secateurs as he conducts a running commentary on what he is doing and the various Spanish words for different types of pruning cut, as many as Eskimo words for snow! There are 'cascales' the weaker, less promising side branches and 'munyones' the congested lumps of previous cuts - all ruthlessly pruned back to the main branches. The result is clean lines, regular spacing of the strongest spurs and a rather more vigorous pruning than I would have achieved.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Beautiful autumn garden, cutting back herbs and perennials

It's been three weeks since my last blog posting because there is so much work to do in the garden at this time of the year. Although many people think of spring as the start of the season, to many professional gardeners, this is the beginning of the yearly cycle; it is now that plans for next year are laid, borders are dug and prepared whilst visualising the spring, plants are moved around and everything is done with the mind's eye on how it will look when the foliage re-emerges. We have been furiously cutting back and sorting out, putting the garden 'to bed' for the winter. Some plants are left standing - eryngiums so that frost can pick out their spiky shapes, teasels for flocks of goldfinches to feast on, Verbena bonariensis to protect it should the winter be hard, peonies until the leaves have turned completely brown and the goodness has gone back down into the tubers.

There are many beautiful moments; the sun slowly breaking through the mist behind the large white daisies of Chrysanthemum uliginosum (picture above), a sudden flurry of long tailed tits tumbling aerobatically through the magnolia, the sharp eyed, sad voiced, robin snatching tiny grubs from by my feet, scintillating drops of water on the drooping, golden heads of Stipa gigantea. The visitors who come at this time of the year tend to be gardeners themselves, without unreal expectations of an autumn garden, people who appreciate the quiet moments and the walled garden's atmosphere. One visitor fell asleep on a sunny bench in the afternoon, another wrote in the visitor's book 'died and gone to heaven'.

Some plants have already been cut back before; geraniums which were sheared after flowering and ladies mantle which was cut right back to its rough, brown crown in summer had put on beautiful, pristine leaves outlined in dewdrops. We now cut these back again so all the foliage can go on the compost heap. Many herbs are vigorously cut back; marjoram (I dont want thousands of marjoram seedlings everywhere!), chives, fennel, valerian, vervain, soapwort, all the herbaceous herbs leaving just the shrubby plants. Some early flowering lavenders were clipped over when their purple tops had faded, late flowering lavender being left til the spring.

We have now had a few nights of frost; the dahlias, runner beans and sweet peas have been hit and leaves are drifting off the trees. I am glad that this accelerates the dying back, so that the underlying structure of the garden is revealed once more, a necessary and welcome part of the cyclical rhythm of the walled garden.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Newts, toads and dragonflies

There's lots of colour still in Chesters Walled Garden - tall stands of Michaelmas daisies, vivid pokeroot berries, great drifts of Verbena bonariensis and sedums, pretty grass seedheads and sumach turning brilliant red - so there is still work to do in the garden. On wet days, however, we work in the tunnels, cutting back perennials, tidying and top dressing and generally preparing the plants that are for sale for their winter rest. Picking up one of the pots I discovered this drowsy little newt underneath and took its photograph! We often find newts in the tunnels at this time of the year and the fact that no chemicals are used and the watering system comes on every now and then must make it an attractive and safe enviornment for them.

In the garden I found a lovely fat toad, snuggled sleepily down amongst geranium foliage where it had created a low hollow for itself. About the round pond, dragonflies are still restlessly darting, probing the bricks around the edge for places to lay eggs. There are now more butterflies than we have seen all year: red admirals, painted ladies, peacocks, small tortoiseshells. Having had such a poor summer for butterflies, it is a relief to see them in numbers. The robin is singing its thin autumn song and a scruffy blackbird follows me around, getting almost up to my feet in its search for worms and grubs that I disturb while cutting back.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Poyntzfield Herb Nursery, Echinacea and butterflies

In my last post I wrote about the wonderful chives that originated at Poyntzfield Herb Nursery on the Black Isle not far from Inverness, and last week I was up there for a visit. This picture shows the garden in late summer glory with a mass of soapwort in the foreground. This useful but highly spreading herb can be used to make a mild cleanser, just the thing for fabrics that have been dyed with herbal dyestuffs. But remember it is almost worse than mint for being invasive! No wonder it easily spread from the laundries in America when it had been taken there by settlers for the washtubs.

I sat in the garden in glorious sunshine having a cup of purple sage tea with Duncan Ross who has run Poyntzfield for many years and built it up to have a huge catalogue of herbs available by post. Seeds were drying in boxes in a lean-to shed ready for next year's plants, labels were all stacked neatly in alphabetical order.

What amazed me in particular were the vast numbers of butterflies on all the plants -especially on the echinaceas, compact marjorams and this lovely Carline thistle. In common with reports I've heard from all over the country when visitors have come to Chesters Walled Garden, there has been a desperate drop in the butterfly population presumably due to the wet summer and Duncan said that their numbers were only up now in September - but it was a glorious sight, all the more so for being unusual this year.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Colourful AGM chives, marjorams and Joe Pye Weed

Cutting back herbs half way through the season is a great way of having a second (or third) crop of fresh leaves to harvest as well as sometimes producing more flowers. The multicoloured rows in the chive bed were cut down over a month ago and are now looking colourful again. In the picture you can see ordinary chives Allium schoenoprasum at the back, with the rich pink of 'Pink Perfection' and the bright, large heads of 'Black Isle Blush' in the foreground. Both these excellent varieties originated at Poyntsfield on the Black Isle & received an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. They look so attractive that they can be grown at the front of a flower border or used in combination with low grasses or silvery plants such as lambs ears.

The marjorams are in full flower right now, the plants in the National Collection grown in defined clumps for propagating and identification with a separate area where they are allowed to run riot and self seed in a very natural Mediterranean hillside kind of way.

A plant from a very different kind of terrain, Joe Pye Weed looks rather spectacular in late August and September. Growing wild in damp meadows (on the same sort of land as does our native meadowsweet) this gorgeous tall perennial is way above my head this year, revelling as it has done in the wet summer. Last year, it was a good three feet shorter! Nice to know something has done well out of all the rain. It's a plant that does fine in flower arrangements and lasts ok - I've just given some to one of our volunteers who has the month of August to do the flowers in a local church. Also good for attracting insects, this plant usually has masses of hover flies, bees and butterflies around it but butterflies seem to have been really badly hit by the weather and we've seen alarmingly few - even though the long buddleia hedges are full out. There's lots of late summer flowers out in the walled garden and at least there are plenty of bumble bees.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Roman herbs & astilbes

The acanthus in the Roman garden looks wonderfully sculptural at this time of the year; hardly surprising then, that its leaves were the inspiration for the capitals on Corinthian columns. The tall flower heads are really very prickly, but the flowers dry well, keeping their colour without collapsing which can be unusual for white petals. Any that hang over the path get cut and put in the shop for flower arrangers to buy fresh or dried. The Roman garden is divided into four beds; two of culinary herbs, one of medicinal and one of sacred herbs, and it is in this last bed that the Acanthus is planted. Next to it is a large bush of myrtle, a plant long associated with love, sprigs of which are put into wedding bouquets. (Queen Victoria had myrtle in hers) Its young leaves when squeezed smell of bubble gum!

Also in the sacred herb bed is vervain which was dedicated to goddesses, firstly to Isis and then to Venus. Roman women would make small garlands of vervain (and also violets and lavender, both in our Roman garden) to lay on the household altar. We know it was used in Britain thanks to archaeological evidence - pollen grains were found during digs at Roman Silchester in Berkshire.

There is plenty I could write about our Roman garden and I'll concentrate on cooking herbs in a future blog. For now, let me show a picture of how the astilbe border looks right now. As the walled garden is south facing and free draining, the only place to put damp-loving plants is in the shade of the bottom wall. In a normal summer when the rest of the garden gets hot and dry, the astilbes can revel in the moist soil down there, alongside some of the hostas, but lack of rain has not exactly been a problem this year! The astilbes self-seed happily and I love their various shades of pink, from candyfloss to deep salmon mixed in with some whites. There was goats beard in this border just before the astilbes came into flower - Aruncus silvester - a lovely white fluffy effect, but I have cut all the flower stalks out now because when over they go a sad shade of brown. Early August is a time of massive cutting back all over the garden, to allow fresh foliage to come through and to stop too much self-seeding; some is wonderful and looks natural, too much can be too much - it's a careful juggling act!

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Pheasant, rain, midge cream and ladies mantle!

Our tame pheasant has now had a second brood and we hope she will be a bit better at mothering this lot; eleven chicks this time that run about crazily all over the lawn, then dash under her sheltering wings. It can be very comical watching them trying to get under her feathers with their legs sticking out. She follows the lawnmower closely, ready for any scattered grass seeds. Up in the air, the young kestrels tumble and cry, then hover over the parkland, whilst on the bird nuts, whole families of blue, great and coal tits are so involved in feeding that you can almost stand next to them.

The rain has done nothing to spoil the garden, in fact the plants are looking really lovely. Deliberately grown close together, all the perennials in the borders are self-supporting and nothing is staked. It all looks very full and natural and beautiful in the evening light if I take a group around. Amazingly, it hasnt rained on a single evening tour this year! Nor have the midges been bad, though we are always have plenty of 'Evening Balm' in the shop which is made in Scotland from organic ingredients.
This is the time for cutting back the first flush of growth; hardy geraniums, some centaureas, oriental poppies, lungworts and especially ladies mantle are cut hard back to create new fresh growth. I sometimes see gardeners have cut the flowered stems from ladies mantle but left the old leaves which I think ends up looking rather tatty. I cut the entire plant back so that all that is left is the brown 'core' and within just a week to ten days it is looking as it does early in the year - a mound of pretty scalloped leaves that hold jewelled water drops.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

A great week for wildlife!

Last Saturday we held an Organic Day at the walled garden, a day which was supported by Northumberland National Park and had a variety of lovely things going on - bird & bumble bee talks, marquees with garden gifts, music from a Northumbrian piper, tours of the organic vegetable garden, composting demonstrations and a signing of my new book A Sense of Herbs. It was a sunny afternoon and the garden was full of people enjoying the flower borders and peering into them to spot bumble bee species after an inspiring talk from one of the Park rangers. He was able to spot, within a few minutes of coming into the garden, all six common species of bumble bees as well as two species of cuckoo bumble bees (which like the bird take over the nests of other bees)
Things were going on in the pond too as several dragonflies emerged and dried their wings in the sun. This photograph is of a hawker, the largest species of dragonfly that frequents the garden ponds, having spent probably two years in its larval stage in the water. And up til now we have had 67 recorded species of birds but on Saturday morning, with opportune timing, Alan, the birder who compiles our list, saw a female cuckoo flying over which brings the total to 68!

Sunday, 10 June 2007

My latest book, entitled A Sense of Herbs, is now in the bookshops and I really love the cover that uses my son, Tom's photograph of chopped parsley cascading down into a blue bowl. The picture was technically quite difficult but has such a fresh, clean look and just makes you want to pick up and open the book. This book is the literary equivalent of low food miles! - commissioned by a local publisher (Ergo Press of Hexham), printed in Hexham, written and illustrated with my own line drawings directly from plants in Chesters Walled Garden and printed on recycled paper.

I've selected 28 of my favourite herbs and written about them from a very personal point of view - how I use them in the garden, enjoy them and cook with them, what stories and histories they have and how easy they are to grow. The book is endorsed by Stephen Anderton, the Times gardening correspondent and is selling well already.

The garden is looking wonderful right now in its summer ease, with painted lady butterflies shimmering over the borders and fledglings trying tentative flights across the lawns. Apart from the floppy Knautia macedonica, not a single plant in the borders is staked, thanks to the policy of growing everything close together, supporting each other and with little water loss from the soil when it doesn't rain. The thymes are in flower earlier than normal (some 3 weeks I reckon), the newly accepted National Collection of Sanguisorba (or burnet) starting to erupt in white, pink and burgundy bottlebrush flowers.

On Saturday June 23rd we are having an Organic Open Day when entry to the garden is FREE OF CHARGE and there are lots of things happening within the walls - talks on organic growing, attracting birds to the garden, bumble bee recognition, compost making demonstrations, music from a Northumbrian piper and a marquee full of garden gifts from social enterprises, local artists and charitable workshops - fairly traded, ethically sourced and environmentally friendly. Added to this will be the official launch of my new book with a book signing. I hope as many of you as can will make it - it should be a lovely day!

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Every year a pheasant raises a large brood of chicks in the garden; although this is not particularly popular with the gardeners - dust bathing amongst vegetable seeds is a nuisance! - it is always a hit with the visitors. Many people have been photographing her and her wandering, chirping collection of mottled chicks as they dive in and out of the borders. They are quite comical as they crash land off low stone walls or bump into each other. Yesterday I decided to take my own photographs for my blog so this is her appropriately looking out from amongst the foliage of Aster 'Star of Chesters'.

I next tried to photograph the chicks - not an easy task as they are constantly rushing about! I managed with the one you can see on the right and was taking this, aware that by my elbow was another chick... as I pressed the button I felt a fierce flutter of wings and a sparrowhawk snatched the other chick from right next to me in a precise movement and flew off to the yew tree. She had been so entirely focused on grabbing the chick that the sparrowhawk seemed to have completely ignored me, even though her wings almost brushed my arm. This single mindedness doesn't surprise me as I had a similar experience some years ago when a sparrowhawk took a baby wren from right in front of me.

The Thyme Bank is in flower early this year - almost by a month - and many other plants seem to be flowering before their foliage has achieved its usual height. The garden looks wonderful though and as we are growing more and more late perennials, I don't worry about it running out of steam. Particular delights are the double Ranunculus aconitifolius known as Fair Maids of France, the many alliums and nectaroscordums, the multicoloured rows of chives including 'Pink Perfection' and 'Black Isle Blush', the fresh yellow of perfoliate alexanders and the first flush of hardy geraniums. We have an Organic Day planned for Saturday June 23rd, with free entry to the garden to celebrate organic growing and wildlife - more on this in my next blog...

Monday, 7 May 2007

spring herbs

This is such a wonderfully fresh time in the garden with so many herbs looking brightly coloured in their new foliage. Golden varieties such as golden lemon balm and marjoram will lose that intense colour when they start to put on flower spikes, so I value them most at the moment. The lemon balm seen here is growing at the base of one of the old espalier apple trees, its gnarled, tightly pruned spurs starting to put on palest pink flowers. Golden balm makes a pool of brilliant colour at the base of the tree, alongside vibrant yellow Welsh poppies and the equally glowing tops of the perfoliate alexanders, Smyrnium perfoliatum. I first bought this self seeder from the Chelsea Physic Garden years ago and I love its yellow green bracts mixed with the blue flowers on the lower branches of a rosemary bush. Blue and yellow is a perfect spring colour combination.
The tulips have been much admired, not just my favourite red Apeldoorn, but the large drifts of yellow and red striped tulips that were a mistake! I ordered something completely different but visitors have liked them so much that I even had someone mentioning them on the phone from Glasgow. They are planted in the sandy soil of an old greenhouse base where later I hope the newly laid out fox tail lilies will send up their elegant flower spikes amidst the delicate daisies of Erigeron karvinskianus. I say 'hope' because nothing is ever guarenteed in gardening, the weather and the wildlife all playing an unexpected part.
Speaking of wildlife, the thrushes have been feeding newly fledged young all over the garden - I think there are three separate familes and everwhere I go I can hear the tap-tapping of brittle snail shells being pounded against brickwork. The long tailed tits that are nesting deep in a bamboo come out and do aerobatics amongst the tall curving plumes of a pampas grass. I took round a party of 37 from a horticultural society and the long tailed tits put on an excellent performance on cue. Next Sunday, the garden is open for the National Gardens Scheme and the entrance money for the day goes to this excellent charity.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

With the warm weather, the plants are springing away, comma butterflies are on the wing and the garden is busy with birds finding places to nest. I watched a pair of long tailed tits, their beaks holding curving pheasants feathers, disappear into the depths of a bamboo. They have nested here before and I hope they stay again and are not put off by all the garden activity.

Toads have been mating in the Mediterannean Pond, their long necklaces of spawn now twist through the water weeds and frogs are in the little pond in the greenhouse. There are newts in the round pond as well.

The sinister looking plant above is the Japanese Belladonna, Scopolia carniolica. A toxic plant, it contains alkaloids similar to Deadly Nightshade and induces a state of sleep which is similar to normal sleep. It was used at the beginning of the twentieth century in combination with morphine in a preparation known as Twilight Sleep. As a type of anaesthesia it was discontinued as the mortality rate was high!

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

This is such a busy time of year in the walled garden with so much to do getting it ready for visitors and propagating plants for sale. The picture shows part of the wooden, white painted greenhouse, daffodils blooming under the glass and rows of young herbs enjoying this week's sunshine. Original Victorian cast iron grilles make a decorative walkway, the little green leaves of mind-your-own-business growing up between their fretwork. Against the white wall, the pink-flowered nectarine is in bloom, buds are about to burst on the yellow Rosa banksiae and the heavenly rosemary 'Tuscan Blue' is covered in rich blue flowers.

Sitting having a lunch break, we are aware of the great variety of bird song. The old walls, ivy, shrubs and roses provide numerous nest sites and every day there is some little incident that I cherish; today it was having to encourage a robin to leave the tunnel before I lowered the netting, yesterday watching a goldcrest picking its jerky way along the espalier apples just a yard away from me.

I spent the afternoon cutting down the Verbena bonariensis in the two large formal beds. It was a wonderful fuzz of purple in late summer and autumn, much admired by visitors who had not seen it grown en masse before. I am so used to the idea that it might not survive up here in Northumberland, that I leave it until now to prune it back, but after such a mild winter, I wonder if I should actually bother to give it special treatment and cut it down with all the other perennials in the autumn. It does seed itself freely so I will no doubt have lots of seedlings to transplant into the borders if there are any gaps. I keep the large herbaceous borders cram full of ebullience; this helps to keep the soil moist and gives the naturalistic planting for which the garden is known.

Friday, 16 February 2007

The light shining through the Miscanthus in the grass garden looked quite ethereal earlier this week, so it was with mixed feelings that I cut it down to make way for this years growth. This is the time of year when there is much tidying up to do in readiness for visitors coming back to the garden in March. With such a mild winter, some of the herbaceous plants have not died back. Lungworts are flowering already, the hellebores hang their dusky maroon heads and the giant snowdrops, Galanthus plicatus, are the purest white. A ladybird was walking amongst the dead leaves, woken by a warm day on Tuesday.

Each year, Alan Todd, a local birdwatcher carries out a bird count which is displayed in the shop. It shows what birds have been seen in each month and is a fascinating record. This winter he has spotted up to a dozen brambling (or maybe more) feeding amongst the beech leaves and flying over the garden. As they have been uncommon this winter in Northumberland, word got around and a few birders have visited Chesters to tick them off their year list! He was particularly excited to see a Hawfinch (the 1st record at Chesters) sitting in a beech tree near the shop and preening itself for about 20 minutes in the drizzle. This is quite an unusual bird and is described in my bird book as 'extremely wary' so it is not that easy to see despite its huge beak and head. With all the leaf raking (this is the downside of the sheltering woodland), I have been followed around by two robins and a female blackbird, quite the tamest blackbird I have ever known who comes right up to my feet. There's never a day in this garden without something of interest when it comes to wildlfie.

I submitted my new book to the publisher, Ergo Press, along with the drawings I have made of the herbs and work has already begun on the layout. It will hopefully be out in early April if all goes to plan. It was good being able to write it from a personal point of view, drawing on the things I have learnt over the many years of gardening here. The cover looks wonderful with Tom's studio picture of parsley falling into a bowl. It will be out in time for Easter at least; between now and then is lots of hard work in the garden!

Thursday, 25 January 2007

winter aconites and snowdrops

Winter aconites are flowering in the garden and have done since the first week in January; I had thought this was rather early but looking at my gardening notes for 1993 I found that they were also out then. Snowdrops are in flower too, but this week of cold weather will hold them back a bit. I am glad of the frosty nights which are a natural part of winter but also glad that I had watched the forecast and thoroughly fleeced the fig and myrtles in the walled garden.
The nuts and seeds are crowded with birds getting food to keep the cold at bay; blue, great and coal tits, robin and dunnock foraging underneath and the splendid vivid colours of greater spotted woodpecker and goldfinch. A bird count is updated each year and is on display in the shop, showing what birds frequent the garden in each month. The teasels are left standing as long as possible for the goldfinches to extract their seeds (the downside is the plethora of teasel seedlings in the borders!) but I cut those down after the last gales had battered them about. The paths are littered with rose hips brought down in the high winds - a beautiful sight, their brilliant orange-red shapes jewelling the grey of the gravel paths. I am keeping a close eye on the tulip beds to make sure the bulbs are not dug up by pheasants again this year. They do so much damage with their large feet and claws, knocking over plants in their pots in the sales area and scratching around. Once we are open and there are visitors in the garden, most of the pheasants move off although there is always one each year that raises a brood of chicks, much to the delight of the visitors!

Thursday, 4 January 2007

A new year in the garden

After the gales of New Year's Eve (bad enough to force cancellation of Edinburgh's Hogmany fireworks and Newcastle's too), it was with some trepidation that I walked around the walled garden to see if there was any damage. Luckily the only thing was that the fleece that had protected the fig had been torn off and shredded on a nearby rose bush! As a gardener, the one thing I hate above all else is a gale. I cut down the tall teasels, their seeds now eaten by the goldfinches or scattered by the wind and decided that the next job will be to cut down the grass garden to make way for the new shoots. Bulbs are springing up all over the place - snowdrops, Iris reticulata, daffs, snowflakes and the tightly curled fists of winter aconites. The pineapple sage is still flowering exotically in the greenhouse, a jug full of it having been on the kitchen table on Christmas Day. (See blog posting of 11Dec) It's a strange season, with ceanothus and hebes in flower alongside the more expected, scented blooms of Mahonia 'Charity'.

I have started work on a new herb book commissioned by local Ergo press of Hexham. It will be a down to earth guide to growing and eating the most popular herbs and Tom has taken the front cover image. He has just created his own website - - and many of the dazzling images of wildlife and nature were taken in Chesters Walled Garden, from blue tits bathing in the pools to leaves under frost. His blog was mentioned in the letters page of the Independent a few weekends back and that inspired him to go further and make a website too. With the short days, it is good to have time to study seed catalogues, write herb articles and plan for the coming year.