Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Chesters Walled Garden as the year turns

The solstice has passed and we've now had the shortest day; every day has a bit more daylight to the relief of gardeners!

Happy Christmas from Chesters Walled Garden!

Saturday, 6 December 2008

The garden in winter - Contorted hazel

Snow fell this week much earlier than the last few years, transforming the walled garden into a magical place, well, more magical than usual! All the topiary and hedges were outlined in white, changing the whole picture like a photographic negative. What really amused me were the footprints of pheasants on the snowy paths - parellel lines of three 'toes', so regular and going round in loop the loops in places that they reminded me of the patterns that used to be printed onto convicts clothes! What the pheasants do is not so amusing and every year they get bolder as the garden quietens without visitors - and it is when they start pecking and knocking over the plants for sale that I wish they weren't around!

There is so much shape in the garden, even with the herbaceous plants cut down, thanks to the underlying rythmns of paths, hedges, ponds, tree trunks, grasses and teasels. Every time I go near the latter, a little group of goldfinches flies out and settles in the eucalyptus until I go, when they can resume their search for seeds. The round pond looks very pretty with the concentric bricks around it edged in snow and next to it stands a good sized contorted hazel, Corylus avellana 'Contorta', which looks stunning at the moment. It is at its best in winter (in summer, the rather buckled leaves look a bit diseased) when you can really see its crazy squiggles.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Preparing the garden for winter

It's now mid-November and the garden has been well prepared for winter. All the herbaceous perennials have been cut down, leaving the outline of beds traced by the box hedges and paths, the soil tidy and weeded and everything dormant for the next few months. The garden still has wonderful winter structure thanks to the hedges, the topiary and the tall grasses which are left standing. Teasels stand high, sheltered from the winds by the garden walls, and a feast for goldfinches who love their seeds. The shelter provided by the woods (tall sculptural beeches in particular) has its downside in the vast number of leaves that flood into the garden, covering the lawns and paths. We collect the leaves for leafmould which is then put on the vegetable garden and the National Collection of Sanguisorba. Some leaves are simply raked onto the shrub borders to make a deep, rich mulch.

In the greenhouse, everthing that isn't evergreen has also been cut back; lemon verbena, blackcurrant sage, passion flower, Rosa banksiae lutea, balm of gilead and other scented delights. I do this before the leaves drop so there is less clearing up to do. The grape vine has been pruned (see blog posting of Nov 07) and the rest of the grapes were put out for the blackbirds who cleared the lot away in a couple of days! They do love fruit. This picture is of the luscious bunches of dark grapes heaped on one of the tables for sale (www.gardart.co.uk) ready to go out for the birds. To the right is my original plant of Erigeron karvinskianus whose offspring have been sold in the nursery for some years and seedlings of which now survive outside in the garden.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Cutting back perennials

The walled garden was closed for this season last Friday and will re-open next March which means a bit of time off for us; there will be moments of quiet and contemplation rather like a seaside resort that has been shut up for winter. The weather has been lucky for the last few weeks with mostly dry days and this has really helped in getting the garden 'put to bed'. Perennials in the borders have been cut down, seeds have been saved in paper bags, roses pruned back and all the comfrey harvested for the third time this year for the compost heap. Despite the usual guidance in books to leave four inches on perennial stems to protect the plants in the winter, I cut most plants hard back to the ground so it is easier to rake up leaves; this has never resulted in anything being lost as all the plants I treat this way are completely hardy. What is left untouched is more borderline - the fabulous beds of Verbena bonariensis (see last posting) as well as anything with a particularly lovely winter outline such as sea holly. Teasels are left standing for the goldfinches to feast on.

We had several frosts last week, the hardest being on Wed/Thurs night and it resulted in a magical transformation for a few short hours. These photos show the effects. Especially beautiful was the Heuchera 'Amber Wave' which has been much admired all season, growing in a large terracotta pot by the blue entrance gate. I also really liked the contrast between the cold, northern ice crystals and the hot Indian colours of the pot marigolds - Calendula 'Orange King' which was Gertrude Jekylls's favourite (see posting for 24th August showing how we grew the calendula as a companion plant to the runner beans). I will of course carry on blogging through the cold months as last year so you can see what the garden looks like even when it is closed to visitors. And you can see my photographs of wildlife and landscape on the BBC Autumnwatch Flickr group too.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The best autumn colour - and a toad with attitude!

Lovely autumn days - what a contrast to the misery of a summer we have had - and there is still so much going on in the garden. The Verbena bonariensis beds are still flowering profusely, visitors are wowed by their sheer size and exuberance and the way that in such a mass they are entirely self-supporting. The sedums are also full out, though sadly we don't have the numbers of butterflies of previous years.I did, though, see this beautiful moth known as angle shades, Phlogophora meticulosa, when we were cutting down the long line of golden yarrow.

There was a lovely full page spread about the garden in The Mail on Sunday just over a week ago and the journalist, Martyn Cox, wrote about all the colour that is still in our garden at this time of the year, and especially mentioned the glorious verbena beds. We are selectively cutting down plants that have finished flowering and this accentuates the colour of the flowers that are blooming - vibrant purple asters, pale jewels of hardy fuschias, rich red rosehips, scintillating grasses, dainty cyclamen, huge cardoons and many others. When cutting back we find lots of toads - I know I posted a picture of a toad recently, but I particularly liked the attitude of this young toad which was hiding under some geraniums!

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Mellow fruitfullness in a Northumberland walled garden

The grapevine in the greenhouse is loaded with fat bunches of fruit, the grapes hanging all the way along the twisting stems just under the glass. They are best suited to winemaking although they are ok for eating (but have rather a lot of small pips and are a bit tart) - every year I offer them FREE to any winemaker who would like them. They are still up for grabs this year, if anyone would like them!! There are usually enough to fill two or three black bin liners. Pruned last year by my Spanish friend Francisco, (see blog post for 12th November 2007)the vine is looking good and it is a wonderful sight.

When I came into the walled garden this morning, the sun was breaking through a misty start, so emblematic of autumn, and I took this shot of the many layers of planting that you can see across the garden because of the gentle slope. Over the golden flat heads of yarrow and the Scots rose hedge, you can glimpse the huge beds of Verbena bonariensis - looking stunning - and the general fluffiness beyond of wild clematis, Clematis vitalba, with beyond that the trees of the parkland.

It's the start of cutting back time and we have to be so careful when delving into a thick, damp clump of geranium or Shasta daisies because of all the toads. This gorgeous, plump toad is just one of the reasons that the garden is an organic success with its own wonderful balance and equilibrium. There never is a pest that gets out of hand because there is always a predator looking for food. I love the bumpy warts on the toad's skin and it's bright eye! It's such a fulsome, lovely time of year.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

A National Gardens Scheme garden on Windermere

I've just spent a week in the Lake District, the weather often very wet but the area of the central fells beautiful as always. As well as walking, I couldn't resist going to see a garden, so, seeing that Lakeside Hotel at the bottom end of Windermere was open for the National Gardens Scheme, David and I went there on a wet morning. So often the gardens of hotels are unimaginative and full of routine planting and but this was a revelation! With a managing director who is a very keen gardener and a great gardening team of Martin Thompson and Richard Lucas, the gardens are full of ideas and good plants.

The front lawn which borders Windermere has been excitingly treated as a labyrinth. Once there is enough spring growth on the lawn, it is cut at a variety of heights with the actual design traced out with the mower blades on their lowest setting. These are changed each year and if you go on the hotel's website you can see some of the previous designs. I thought it was a really creative use of what would otherwise be a plain green space.

All around the lakeside terrace the planting is lush and full of scented plants; nicotiana, David Austin roses, philadelphus, lilac, jasmine, heliotrope, lemon balm and many others. The most unusual is a large shrub of Calycanthus occidentalis which has curious, reddish apple scented flowers.
The tables on the terrace (allowed to go a pleasing natural silver, not horribly stained with preservative as is often seen!) have terracotts pans full of mini-plantings of houseleeks and sedums. Large wooden planters at the front of the hotel are given height with wigwams of fresh willow allowed to sprout leaves and covered in the twisting swags of the gorgeous Rhodochiton atrosanguineus rising out of white dahlias and blue Salvia patens, a lovely combination.
Even the interior courtyard of the hotel is transformed with colourful painting on the walls and tropical feeling banana trees, pawlonia, creepers and eucalypts. It's the kind of area that in many hotels becomes a place for sticking the wheelie bins and trolleys, often a rather depressing back area that some unfortunate bedrooms look out on but not here! It has the atmosphere of a Mediterranean courtyard and the colour of the walls made it feel sunny even on a wet September day.

There is much to admire in the hotel's garden (planting of local heritage varieties of apple, scented pelargoniums in the conservatory, a wide variety of trees and shrubs) but the other really dynamic feature is this pretty little parterre. Looking at it with the backdrop of the 'country house' which has bedrooms with individual gardens, it just looks like an attractive assymetric design - until you realise that it is in fact a roof garden over the swimming pool. There is just 15cms of topsoil and a special drainage system and the clipped box beds are full of scented herbs. I hope it might inspire other hotels to realise just what potential there is for creating something really special.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Companion planting: growing runner beans with pot marigolds

I can't help it but I have to mention the weather yet again! We've had all August's rainfall in the first two weeks of the month; the lawns are witness to this, growing more lushly and needing quicker cutting than I can ever remember. But despite all that, the garden looks wonderful, dreamy and hazy with golden seedheads on tall grasses, massed beds of Verbena bonariensis and swathes of perennials that are never staked but, being densely planted, have held each other up throughout it all. And there have been no outbreaks of pests or if there have, the natural balance of the garden has been able to compensate - blue tits speedily picking aphids from branches, ladybirds and hover fly larvae doing their bit in flower heads and thrushes pulverising snails on the brickwork!

One of the ways that we encourage this balance is by planting a wide range of different herbs and perennials, mixing plants up and allowing self-seeding or in the case of the vegetable garden, companion planting with pot marigolds. These vibrant double flowers, Calendula officinalis 'Orange King' were favourites of Gertrude Jekyll and I love their cheerful, bright Indian colours. Here you can see them grown in front of the runner beans which we are now harvesting - how delicious freshly picked runner beans are! We are growing a variety called 'Painted Lady' for its pretty bicoloured flowers in red and white, good enough to grow in a front garden.

There's so much to notice that is out in flower right now despite the fact that August is a difficult time to keep the garden looking dynamic. One of the hardest working plants I can think of is this low-growing Persicaria affine which spreads in flat mats across the paving slabs and breaks up the line of the gravel path. It's flowers just keep on and on, changing colour as they mature from palest pink, through deep pink to a swathy red. This means that you have all these colours at once on its spreading mass, and its attractive leaves will start to colour up too when the autumn comes. Our gravel paths are made from whinstone from a local quarry just three miles away - whinstone is what forms the rocky outcrops along which Hadrian's Wall loops and twists in much photographed undulations. The grey gravel is such a good foil for so many garden plants and hasn't had lots of miles to travel either!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Calendulas amongst the vegetables

What dreadful wet weather we have been having! Yesterday I took a coach party from Floors Castle Garden Club round the garden and it was the first time ever that I had to abandon a guided tour (luckily very near the end) because the rain was coming down so hard! They were, however, cheerful and resilient and vowed to come back when the weather was better. Despite it all, the garden looks lovely.

In amongst the vegetables we grow a particularly good form of pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) called 'Orange King'. This was one of Gertrude Jekyll's favourite flowers and she often incorporated it into her designs - it can be seen for example in the little walled garden at Lindisfarne Castle up the beautiful Northumberland coast, a garden which I included in my book Gardens of Northumberland and the Borders. Calendulas make good companion plant which is why we grow it as well as for the brilliant colour it brings to the vegetable garden. Grown amongst tomatoes, it helps prevent whitefly and lined out with broad beans it's a deterrent to blackfly. Here we've picked the heads without stems and laid them in a blue bowl filled with water with one of the passion flowers from the greenhouse in the centre.

The birds have not being enjoying the wet weather either and I noticed this youngster looking rather bedraggled among the angelica leaves. It's a young stock dove and I love the soft grey colour of its feathers. Alan Todd who carries out a bird count here submits all the records to the British Trust for Ornithology - he has recorded 68 different species including some less common species such as hawfinch. Last week I saw a bird of prey that I think might have been a red kite but I cant be sure til it's confirmed (I didnt have my glasses on!). It's not that unlikely since red kites have been seen just a mile away so we'll have to see if it comes back. If you are a keen birder, come along and see what you can see!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Lilies are poisonous to cats

I have some large terracotta pots at home which are planted with sumptuous lilies, all gloriously in flower at the moment and smelling incredibly heady in the late afternoon particularly. Last year we had such heavy downpours that they were spoiled very quickly; this year they are making a wonderful display. I thought I'd post my blog this week about lilies because so many people don't realise that they are very poisonous to cats. This is especially a problem with cut flowers - they might be left on a low table and brushed against by a cat or the flowers chewed. The pollen is so thick - not a good idea to get it on your clothes! and some people cut the stamens off for this reason - and cats may easily groom themselves and injest the pollen. This can cause renal failure, vomiting, blindness, paralysis and death. More details can be found on the Cats Protection website amongst others. I first came across this when I saw a press cutting about it, stuck up with drawing pins in a village noticeboard in Sawrey in the Lake District (near Beatrix Potter's house, Hill Top) by some public spirited cat loving person.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Sanguisorba Collection at Chesters Walled Garden

High summer, though you wouldnt know it from the weather, and the Sanguisorba collection is out into flower. Some of the plants will be flowering well into autumn, some, such as salad burnet, are due to be cut back already - so for a long period there are always some plants within the collection in flower. They have had a bit of a battering from the wind and rain and are staked with rusted iron supports which hardly show. I love their flowing forms and mass of small flowerheads waving on long stems. In the foreground is Sanguisorba stipulata (which used to be called S. sitchensis), then Sanguisorba obtusa with its pink candyfloss flowers and behind that a variety of Sagnuisorba officinalis (the wild greater burnet) known as 'Martin's mulberry.'

The garden wildlife is amazing as usual. There is something interesting happening every day, and yesterday it was a young nuthatch that flew into the shop. It kept settling on the wooden beams and I had to turn out the lights to encourage it to fly out of the open door. Also yesterday, I saw the first hawker dragonfly in the garden, newly emerged. This is a bit later than last year (see my blog entry for June 07). Two greater spotted woodpeckers flew onto the nuts whilst some visitors had their backs turned and were choosing plants in the sales area - they were youngsters and less cautious than the adult woodpeckers who will wait until people are rather further away.

I went to photograph a local National Gardens Scheme garden yesterday morning - Cheeseburn Grange at Stamfordham - so that I can write it up for my piece in The Journal. New to the Scheme, it has been transformed from a wilderness over 15 years and I hadnt known what to expect. I was delighted by the garden and felt I could have spent much longer imbibing the atmosphere. For the full description go the Journal archives after next Saturday (icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk)

Monday, 23 June 2008

The Moon and Flowers

Saturday was Midsummer's Day but who would have believed it! "Unseasonal" was how the weatherman put it, which was sad because so many people were looking forward to our special event in the garden. Nevertheless, lots of hardy folk turned up, even in the afternoon when it was steadily raining, and had picnics in the yurt in a resiliently British way.

It was the world premier of The Moon and Flowers, a collaboration between poet Linda France and sound recordist Chris Watson, which started as a seed of an idea when Linda visited the garden once a month on the day of the full moon for a complete year. The resulting cycle of poems reflect the seasonal changes in
the garden and much else besides - I can't do them justice by describing them, you need to come to the garden and here them relayed in the clematis-covered arbour where they can be heard for the next couple of months or buy the limited edition copy in the shop.

Chris Watson, world renowned sound recordist who has worked on numerous wildlife programmes, visited the garden with Linda during September's full moon, once at dawn and again at dusk the same day and recorded his soundscape of birdsong and natural noises. Linda said "It was magical. Chris has worked all over the world but, here, we were both almost awestruck. Being in this beautiful place seemed such a privilege." Last Saturday, Linda gave two live readings of the poems, followed by which was Chris's recording of her voice overlaying the birdsong.

The garden was serenely green and lovely in the rain and the readings took place in a beautiful yurt hand-made by Oran Villiers-Stuart (www.underwoodworkshop.co.uk) using local timber, larch, oak and ash. It was the perfect place to hear the poems and to listen to the evocative sound of a Northumbrian piper and, later, a cellist. The whole event was funded by our local arts centre, Queen's Hall in Hexham, and brilliantly brought together by Holly Clay. People came out from Newcastle for the day and we were amazed by just how many ignored the weather and came for what for me was the high point of the year.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Really sharp hand shears!

At this time of the year there are so many jobs to do in the garden and I have discovered a really useful pair of single-handed hand shears that leave your left hand free to grab grass, long trails of clematis or whatever it is you are trying to cut back. They are also great for harvesting herbs such as this marjoram in the picture. Called Jakoti shears, they are imported by a family in Somerset, who were given a pair by a friend who bought them from a hardware shop on a Greek island. They found them to be so useful for all sorts of gardening jobs from topiary to lawn edging, that they bought them in to sell in Britain.

I like their bright red handles which are cheerful and not easily lost in some box hedge in the garden! They are also, very usefully, self-sharpening and we have now used them for some time in the walled garden and they are still as sharp as when we got them. They are also used for sheep shearing and you can see them in action on the website - www.handshears.co.uk - with a Greek farmer shearing his sheep in a video. It's a strangely lovely video to watch with the only sounds being the tinkling of sheep bells, the snip-snip of the shears and the occasional baa!

Saturday, 31 May 2008

"A swarm of bees in June ...."

I've just got back from the garden in late evening where we have been collecting a bee swarm that arrived in a rose bush this afternoon. Of course it just happened to be one of my favourite roses, rich, darkly scented, purple red, and to collect the bees some of the top growth would have to be cut off ... My son, Tom, who is a beekeeper (and has his own website of photographs at www.tomwhitephoto.co.uk) put our old straw skep on top of the rose branches where the swarm was clustering so that the bees would go up into it - they climb upwards naturally and into the dark skep balanced on the branch where the queen was. Left like that til dusk, the bees should all end up in the skep ready to be scooped up - a free prize to a beekeeper.

Using a smoker to encourage the bees to move up the branches, they carefully snipped bits off the rose until the ball of bees was hopefully mostly in the skep and then - this is the difficult bit - tipped the skep into a hessian sack. It's a dramatic moment when the combined buzzing of thousands of bees is heard! You always hope that somewhere in the mass, the queen is there. With the sack tied up (it has to be breathable so hessian is good) the bees were put in the landrover and taken off to a hive that Tom had prepared ready to take them. The old saying of 'a swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon, a swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly' means that the earlier a swarm is collected the more valuable it is - well, to get one on May 31st is pretty good!

The other thing that has happened this week has been that is was week 4 of the Poetry Workshop run by poet Linda France. It has been wonderful to see the people on the course quietly taking in the garden in a very deep way - really looking and having the time to reflect (which I envy them as I am always looking for the next job to do!) This is a photograph of the group meeting up at the beginning of the morning.

The workshops are leading up to the event on Midsummer's Day, June 21st, when there will be the world premier of the collaboration between Linda France and world renowned sound recordist, Chris Watson (recently seen on Springwatch). Throughout the day there will be timed presentations of this extraordinary work with live presentations of Linda's beautiful cycle of poems that she wrote from visiting Chesters Walled Garden once a month on the day of the full moon for a calendar year. Chris recorded the sounds of the garden as the birds went to bed and work in the morning (4 am I think it was!). There will also be elderflower champagne, strawberries and music from Northumbrian piper, Sue Dunne. Look out for details on www.queenshall.co.uk.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Biodynamic compost at Brantwood

Last Thursday we were in the Lake District at Brantwood, Ruskin's house on a hillside by Coniston Water, a garden that we love and have visited many times. Sally Beamish is the Head Gardener at Brantwood and they have just held the 2nd Northern Biodynamic Spring Conference there. As well as trialling biodynamic methods at the garden, the Conferance enabled Brantwood to become a conduit for linking hill shepherds, gardeners, farmers and anyone interested in biodynamic culture. Sally is following the 2008 Northern Hemisphere Astro Calendar of Brian Keats and Stefan Mager - we hadnt come across this one, using the Thun's calendar ourselves (see my other posts) but it did seem to have a nice clarity in its layout, a more pictorial approach.

The photo above is of Sally's compost heap which is in the pretty orchard below the house. It was more than twice as high when made and has sunk to this level, topped by sheep's wool and incorporating biodynamic preparations. Around the orchard are examples of the six major plants used in some of the preparations - yarrow, chamomile, nettle, dandelion, valerian and oak bark. We havent so far experimented with these preparations at Chesters Walled Garden but think we will in future to see how they work. Sally is doing an agricultural trial at Brantwood with chromatography soil testing to measure the effects from biodynamic preparations against untreated turf.

This picture is of the woven lattice fence in the herb garden at Brantwood, beautifully made of thin layers of locally harvested wood.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.... and sweet cicely

Our terracotta rhubarb forcer, handmade at The Potting Shed in Hexham, has produced some wonderful, delicate stems, vivid in colour, delicious in taste. We cook them with chunks of stem ginger, using a little of the ginger's sticky syrup, and a couple of large leaves of sweet cicely; its aniseed flavour and natural sweetening happen to grow at the perfect time to be used with the rhubarb. As a wildflower, sweet cicely grows particularly well in Northumberland because it likes the cool river banks and road verges, being the first umbellifer to flower in the spring. We have it on display in the main herb border, growing in the sun, though it does especially well in semi-shade.

The last few days of warmth have brought the garden on in a tremendous burst - it was just waiting for the end of the cold weather, poised in energy. I find it hard to believe that it happens so quickly, when I look at a verdant fern that I last saw (surely only a week ago) as tiny croziers. The daffodils and tulips are colouring the beds and this picture is of the centre of the formal beds which later will be a fuzz of acid green from lady's mantle.

The formal beds are planned not just for colour but to be attractive to insects from early spring to late autumn; tulips and daffodils followed by two different salvias, 'Blue Queen' and 'Rose Queen', and the lady's mantle, then Verbena bonariensis following for several months and Sedum spectabile as a final banquet. The formality contrasts nicely with the naturalistic planting of the rest of the garden and the lawns are a welcome green space to sit - or lie, as I found last year when seeing a man flat on his back, gazing up at the sky through the massed purple heads of the verbena!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

An afternoon at Herterton House Garden

As it was a wet afternoon, I went visiting some other nurseries and gardens north of here - Stanton Hall near Morpeth, Herterton House at Cambo and Wallington, the National Trust house and garden. Both Herterton and Wallington feature in my book Gardens of Northumberland and the Borders, both are particular favourites of mine and I have been going to them for many years.

Frank Lawley had just cut the topiary and hedges at Herterton House - yew, box and holly - and I marvelled at the clean lines, at his precision and eye. With the perennial plants only just starting to show, it is a wonderful example of the strength of shape and drama that a garden can have at this time of the year if there is good design. At Herterton, he and his wife Marjorie, have achieved a perfect balance between architecture and garden - walking into the Flower Garden (in the picture) there was an air of expectancy as of a stage set, ready for figures to emerge into it.

In summer the planting is breathtaking, the colour sense and layout with its fascinating old varieties of cottage plants really outstanding. Anyone who doesn't know this garden really must visit it as it is an excellent example of late twentieth century design, admired by many top gardeners including the late Christopher Lloyd. With its Physic Garden, Fancy garden (knot beds), gazebo, Topiary Garden and Flower Garden it has so much to delight. This picture of a detail of the hedging shows just how contemporary it is as well in its abstract shapes. Inspirational!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Biodynamic gardening at Chesters

There has been a bit of a gap since my last blog because so little had changed in the garden - the cold weather has kept the plants in near suspended animation - but finally with the warmth of the last few days, things are moving. The Apeldoorn tulips, which have been in tight bud for three weeks, are gratefully opening and there is growth everywhere.

David has been sowing seeds for, according to the biodynamic calendar, today has been a leaf day. He follows the Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar 2008 of Maria and Matthias Thun and enjoys the discipline and rhythmn that it gives. The seeds he has been sowing are herbs grown for their leaves rather than flowers (a flower day would be better for calendulas, for example) so he has been filling plug trays with little groups of seed of basil, purple basil, parsley, salad burnet, bronze fennel and dill. A recent book that I got is called In Tune with the Moon 2008 published by the Findhorn Press and also has a day to day moon planting calendar but adds all sorts of other interesting areas - the best time for dentistry, hair cutting, bee keeping, aspects of animal husbandry, beer making and many other areas of life. Fascinating.

The greenhouse is crammed with young plants for sale full of vitality and the wonderfully scented herbs on the back wall are now bouncing back. Lemon verbena, balm of gilead, pineapple sage, passion flower etc. were all cut right back for the winter. There are delicate yellow flowers on the Rosa banksiae lutea, a plant that we could not grow outside, but which flourishes in the unheated greenhouse.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Early spring flowers in the walled garden

We have had a lovely couple of days and the wildlife in the garden has responded with exhilaration. Sitting on the bench having our lunch we have watched thrushes, blue tits, great tits, blackbird and chaffinches merrily bathing, splashing and throwing jewelled water drops in the air. We could sense their relief that the days were warm in the way they revelled in the bathing. Ignoring all this completely, a knot of mating toads were croaking away, four males struggling around one poor female. Newts were ambling round about too and all this as we ate our sandwiches!

The tulips are opening - this one is a favourite, 'Scarlet Baby'. There are drifts of scillas and chinodoxas, the delicate yellow cups of Anenome ranunculoides, lovely lungworts, hellebores and the white woodland flowers of Pachyphragma macrophyllum.

At the base of the old magnolia is a pretty spread of my favourite lungwort, Pulmonaria 'Excalibur' which has silver leaves. It lightens the ground under the tree in summer and sets off the plant form sculpture which is by Dennis Kilgallon whose workshop is near us at Kirkharle.

The garden is looking very tidy now and we have had time to go carefully through the Thyme Bank, diligently picking out all the beech leaves, sycamore seeds and winter debris. At the same time, I've been clipping over some of the old flower heads that I missed last year - just last year's flowering tops, no more, as thyme hates being cut into the old wood. Some plants look a bit sad after all the cold, wet weather so I will have to wait and see how they fare, replanting where necessary. I've found a brilliant new tool to clip over the thymes, some one handed shears, rather like sheep shears, but amazingly sharp (and self-sharpening apparently). They are imported from Greece and are particularly useful because you can cut through very soft plant tops where secateurs often snag - the sort of job I might have to go and get a pair of scissors for. I even used them to slice through some frosted succulent leaves of agave! They can be found at www.handshears.co.uk and with their bright red handles, I won't be searching a border to see where I left them!

Monday, 24 March 2008

Lovely Easter weather...

What an Easter weekend! There were forecasts of heavy snow in the North of England although the most we ever had at Chesters were flurries of snow showers, large soft feathery flakes that swept over the garden from time to time. Actually, Sunday was really quite a nice day though cold but this picture was taken today, Easter Monday, and shows the espalier apples through a veil of snow.
Working through the snow showers, we got quite a bit of garden work done - last Friday night's Gardeners' World had an interview with Fergus Garrett who has the garden team at Great Dixter steadily working through the rain regardless, with waterproofs and hats on, clearing the March leaves from under hedges and topiary. A little bit of strange weather doesn't stop us gardeners!

The pair of long tailed tits are still busy on the nut feeder, the female blackbird still following me closely round the garden. She is so tame that she came into the shop on Saturday and had to be lured out with some breadcrumbs (I told her they were particularly good being from biodynamically grown wheat from Gilchesters Organics but I think she liked them anyway). But visitors were probably amused to see me running round the garden, chasing the male pheasants out, because they are less wanted as they will scratch in the pots for sale. They stop doing it once there are lots of people about so .... roll on Spring!

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Rhubarb, the first tarragon and cleaning out the pond

The crowns of rhubarb are erupting with new, crinkled leaves, looking like some kind of alien life form, mysterious and rather sinister in close-up! But I am looking forward to eating the young, pink stems when we take up the old, terracotta rhubarb forcer. Rhubarb is delicious flavoured with sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata, which is luckily in leaf at the same time. Its aniseed flavour helps to naturally sweeten sharp fruits (rhubarb is technically a vegetable) and means you don't have to add so much sugar.

We have just eaten the first tarragon of the season! Wonderful. The plant is grown in the greenhouse soil under a gravel mulch and is now some six inches high and full of flavour. We had it with chicken - the sauce made of creme fraiche, vermouth, a little mustard, garlic and finely chopped onion. Of course, I'm talking French tarragon here - the inferior Russian tarragon, though hardy, is really not worth cooking with. It is coarse and lacking in flavour and, spreading like mint, is a bit of a pest.

Yesterday I cleaned out the pond in the greenhouse, a rather smelly job! It is there to provide a haven for the frogs, our natural predators that patrol the plants for sale - a splash pool that they take advantage of in particular in summer when their heads are just visible above the surface. Using a bucket, I scooped out all the water and murk, running it through a sieve so I could rescue all the newts, frogs, snails and dragonfly larvae. Whilst these waited in another bucket, I washed all the gravel and empty water snail shells from the bottom by running a hosepipe into the sieve to clean it all. Then the pond weed was washed and I could refill the little pond - the water at the garden comes from a spring so there was no problem in using it. Lastly, I could release all the wildlife back into the pond and today the newts are lazily swimming about in their nice clean pond.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Snowdrops and snowflakes

The woods around Chesters Walled Garden are full of snowdrops at the moment, great undulating sweeps of them stretching away amongst the bare trunks of beech trees. Within the walled garden itself there are more snowdrops, as well as some specials such as the gorgeous, large snowdrop, Galanthus plicatus. It's a pity that the cold, windy weather is stopping early bees from benefitting from all the bounty. Other plants are in flower: sky-blue Scillas, spotted Hellebores in varying shades of pink and deep maroon, fragrant Viburnum farreri, rosemary in the greenhouse, fat buds on the protected peach tree and out in the garden, the lovely pointed bells of snowflakes.

I love their vibrant green, less bluey than the leaves of snowdrops, and the little green points on their old fashioned-lampshade shaped flowers. These are spring snowflakes, Leucojum vernum, yet there are already some sporadic flowers on the taller, so named summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum. A seemingly odd name this as it always flowers about March or April but it was named by Linnaeus for whom it bloomed much later in Sweden.

Gardens in other parts of the world have been delighting us on Sundays with Monty Don's Around the World in 60 Gardens series. The most memorable for me have been the ones that widen my concept of gardens - the floating gardens of South America, the organic vegetable plots on derelict land in Havana or great sweeps of prairie grasses. I found it particualry interesting that in the last programme, from America, the two gardens that I loved the most were the two most modern and yet at opposit ends of the design spectrum - James van Sweden's fenland meadow and the stunning Californian house and garden.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Reflections in February

After what has been quite a battering from gales and snow, the garden on this early February day, looks calm and poised for growth. Even the suface of the ponds is still, reflecting the sky which has patches of blue. I love this dwarf scots pine which has a very beautiful form, graceful and rounded in shape; in a previous summer gale two years ago, it leant at an angle and I was worried that it would be lost but it seems to have kept the balance of its roots. There are three ponds, one round, one rectangular and a small pool in the greenhouse for the frogs to cool off in summer. Ponds are the single most effective way of enticing a wide variety of wildlife to the garden. The pool by the scots pine has a wooden ramp to help frogs and toads to get out and to save a hedgehog should one fall in.

All the grasses were cut down last week to allow the new growth to emerge (and to tidy it up after the gales!). The grass garden is pretty much at ground level now, a great contrast to its nine feet of height by autumn. The long flower spikes have been cut out of the Stipa gigantea by sliding the secateurs deep down amongst the fine leaves and then we took a rake to them, combing out all the loose dead leaves and debris that collects in the mound of foliage. The effect is always much better and it's really worth doing.

We are propagating lots of plants for sale as the crowns start to shoot away; lungwort, geum, geranium, euphorbia, epilobium, London Pride, sweet violet among others. The wild garlic is looking fresh and green, and the pheasants like to nibble the young shoots. We are splitting wild garlic and potting up it ready for when the garden is open again; made popular by chefs such as Antonio Carluccio, it makes a delicious soup, salad leaf, addition to a potato curry or a casserole and the smell in the woodland when it is full out is quite magical.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Winter aconites - the first flowers of the year

My last post was a picture of Chesters Walled Garden under snow. Well, the snow went almost as quickly as it had arrived, followed by a week of weather so dull, wet and miserable that I didn't bother to take any photographs - and now we have a snowfall again! I went out with an umbrella to get a picture of these winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, cradled in soft snow, the umbrella necessary to keep the camera dry as it was still bleaching down. A meeting I had was cancelled because the rep couldn't get across country and there is news that the A68 is blocked, again.

Winter aconites are the first perennials to flower in the garden, with the snowdrops and snowflakes not far behind. Although these are already out 'down south', we are always a bit behind. I love the aconites bright green ruff and the particular quality of their yellow flowers. There are some yellows that I really don't like, the colour of Forsythia for one (this is just personal) but aconite yellow has quite a hint of green in it.

A catalogue came in the post today from Cotswold Garden Flowers, Bob Brown's nursery. I have always liked the fact that Bob has strongly held opinions (again entirely personal) and the catalogue gives each plant a score out of ten. He gives a high score to most of the Sanguisorbas, such as S. menziesii (gorgeous), with S. 'Tanna' scoring rather less. Out of my National Collection plants, I agree that it is less exuberant. But I notice he gives an 8 to a Forsythia! Maybe I'll have to check that one out....

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Chesters under snow

It's January 3rd and I took this picture of the garden under snow just half an hour ago; as I write this blog there is more snow falling outside the window. I love the strong lines of hedges and topiary outlined by the white, the self sown pampas grass on the left and the undulating branches of the walnut tree. A hungry robin followed me about, waiting to snatch up any grub that was disturbed by my boots amongst the leaves. We've raked up all the leaves off the lawn so that they don't spoil the grass and used them to refill the leafmould bin or to rot down into a thick mulch on the shrub border at the bottom of the walled garden. There are still some leaves on the gravel paths to rake up when the weather is right - the leafmould they will make will be used on the vegetable garden to enhance the soil structure. It's gorgeous stuff, crumbly, fibrous and rich red brown in colour.

The two trees that look really wonderful at this time of year are the mahogany coloured Prunus serrula, a Tibetan cherry, and the creamy barked Betula jacquemontiae. Visitors love to run their hands over the rich red bark of the cherry. The famous gardener E A Bowles is said to have polished his.

I don't think it needs polishing as the bark is so shiny anyway but I do wash the green algae off the birch tree before we re-open in March. At this time of the year though, the soft watercolour tones of the green have a subtle charm against the snow. Snow can be a mixed blessing; a light dusting like this transforms the winter garden, too much and shrubby herbs can be broken under its weight, box hedges damaged so I hope for moderation!