Monday, 19 October 2009

Herbal ointments

One of the things that visitors say they will miss from our shop when the garden closes is the range of herbal creams that we have sold for the past nine years. Made in Scotland, with simple, unpretentious labelling and organic, straightforward ingredients, they will be missed by me too. So I thought I would let everyone know where they can still get them, especially as Jacqui who makes them, has just had her own website made.

We've always found the calendula ointment great for sunburn. Petals of Calendula officinalis - see picture - are steeped in sunflower oil and mixed with beeswax, lavender oil and benzoin (which is also a natural ingredient) ... and that's all. There's a comfrey ointment too - it's a light green colour from the comfrey leaves, and the midge ointment has always sold well when I took groups round in the evening! Not only was it effective at repelling midges (tested in Scotland! but due to some rules has to be called Summer Evening Balm), but it smells delicious, a mixture of lavender, thyme, citronella and peppermint oils in aloe vera.

Jacqui's website is and there are lots of other products to buy as well as our favourites.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Delicious baked tomatoes

There are so many tomatoes at the moment that we have them baked several times a week and they are just wonderful. David has grown our favourite variety, the small and sweet 'Gardener's Delight', plump little tomatoes on long tresses. We have them baked in the oven to a recipe from Monty Don's book 'Fork to Fork', a much thumbed book in our kitchen which has recently been reissued. I shall really miss them when they are finished but at the moment they have been producing for ages and I just don't get bored with them. At lunchtime, we pick them, hot with sun, straight from the vine.

The garden is amazing for butterflies at the moment. Fallen plums on the grass are being feasted on by red admirals who obviously know a thing or two about grog. You can smell the tinge of alcohol as you walk by! They are so laid back that it takes them a while to lift from the ground, then some 20 or 30 take to the air. They are all over the asters too, loads of them, followed by visitors with cameras!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Late season colour

I had to put in this picture of the dahlia and cosmos bed because it is looking so colourful at the moment - a last dash of exoticism before the first frosts. With the nearby beds of sweet peas (my favourite is 'Cupani') and double orange pot marigolds (Miss Jekyll's favourite, see previous blog posting), this part of the garden looks wonderful at the moment.

At Chesters Walled Garden we have a series of square, box-edged beds and one of these is given up to dahlias and cosmos. All the dahlias were grown from seed this spring and are a variety known as ‘Bishop’s children’. This produces a glorious mix of heady, hot colours; red, rich pink, yellow, burnt orange and apricot. It is surprisingly easy to grow dahlias from seed each year; the results are some unexpected colours but that in itself is fun. This particular seed mix has all the gorgeous dark, purple black foliage of ‘Bishop of Llandalf’.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Miss Jekyll appears in Whalton Manor Garden

Yesterday I went to Whalton Manor Garden to see a 'theatrical dance production' which was inspired by the house, garden and people who have lived or worked there. I didn't really know what to expect so went along without any preconceptions and was delighted by what was a magical performance. Numbers were strictly limited out of necessity because the dance moved between one part of the garden and another, the small 'audience' moving with them. The production was directed by Cinzia Hardy who lives locally and who initially asked the sculptor Julia Barton to install her three 'phyto-forms', metal sculptures that have growing plants which I last saw when she exhibited them at Levens Hall in Cumbria, the famous and ancient topiary garden. Taking the sculptures as inspiration (their forms influenced the design of the costumes) and weaving in the story of Gertrude Jekyll's association with Whalton Manor, the piece evolved to be something very special to the place itself.

Whalton Manor dates back to the 17th century and was altered by Sir Edwin Lutyens - this of course is where Gertrude Jekyll comes in and between them they laid out 3 acres of gardens. Her sunken rose garden doesn't exist any more but we could imagine it during the dance production because it's site was pegged out on the lawn. Various characters from the history of the house appeared or danced, threading their way through the separate garden areas, dancing under trees, stepping out of giant picture frames, retracing the steps of the site of the former ballroom, with music from a rustic band led by a green clad man who embodied the spirit of the garden. There was even a horse ridden by the present owner of the Manor, Penny Norton, who rode between bucolic dancers under the parkland trees and then cantered off in a graceful arc.

It felt like we were glimpsing another world, becoming part of a shifting film set. It had echoes of Alice in Wonderland and the Draughtsmans Contract as well as the history of Miss Jekyll's association with the garden. There was something very gentle and charming about the hour long performance and, with the plan that it might tour in the future, there will hopefully be other opportunities to see it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A very special walnut tree

I received a very special gift the other day from a Dutch nurseryman, Ton Friesen, who visited Chesters Walled Garden last summer. We have a rather fine walnut tree in the garden which amongst other things I will be very sad to leave, but Ton has given me a tree for the future, a walnut that he has bred which produces nuts very early on in its life. We had to wait 20 years for the tree in the walled garden to start producing nuts!

At Ton's nursery, they graft walnut cultivars bred especially for the Dutch and north German climate and so they are probably suitable for northern England too. Their website lists an amazing 33 cultivars of Juglans regia alone. Ton sent me one of their hardier plants, a tree which is grafted and that amazingly takes only two or three years to bear its first nuts. This cultivar is named after the daughter of his friend and colleague, Cess Barnewald and is called Juglans regia 'Chiara'. I met Chiara when she came here with her parents a couple of weeks ago and we all spent a happy hour wandering about the garden. Ton's website is at and he is currently working on an English version of it.

Although we have abundant wildlife at the garden as any follower of my blog will know, one thing we don't often see is a grasshopper. When I was a child there were grasshoppers everywhere in the long grass on the edges of our garden and I loved watching them rubbing their back legs together as they clung to grass stalks. Even on walks I see very few nowadays, so I was very happy to see this one sitting on our old roller. If anyone knows what species it is, I'd like to know!

Friday, 31 July 2009

A handful of pheasant chicks

Pheasants are not the cleverest of birds and, as usual, this is a tale of maternal incompetance. Every year a female pheasant (a different one each time, of course) lays eggs in the garden, somewhere hidden in a border despite all the visitors, (that bit is clever), hatches out a large brood and then proceeds to lose most of them. One year a pheasant hen led them to the pond and three drowned, another let them get scattered all over the lawn attracting the attention of the sparrowhawk and more than once they have been left on the wrong side of a wall. (See previous blogs May & July 07)

That's what happened this year again; the pheasant, having reared up the young in the garden, flew over the bottom gate and expected her brood to somehow rejoin her. Some had made it and others hadnt! It was a visitor who alerted me to their predicament, and her Australian friend, Christine Harris, managed to photograph three of the chicks hopelessly trying to squeeze through the wire on the gate. I scooped up all three at once (see Christine's second photograph) and popped them over the gate with the mother who was clucking every now and then from under a fuschia. All's well that ends well, this time....

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Pot marigold, the wonderful Calendula officinalis

I wrote in an earlier blog about how I lost an entire line of pink lavender in the late winter (except for 4 plants). I deliberately hadn't pruned the old flowers off last year to give the plants more protection in the winter, but even so, the frosts that we had in the late winter were enough to kill all the lavenders. Making a virtue of a necessity, We replanted the space with a long line of that wonderful healing herb, pot marigold or Calendula officinalis, thinking it would look good with the different tone of yellow from the golden yarrow. I'd given a week's worth of work experience to a lad from the Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham and showed him how to lay out the seedlings in a staggered double row, seedlings which had all self sown from a previous lot of marigolds that I had let grow by the side of the drive. In the vegetable garden we grow Gertrude Jekyll's favourite marigold, 'Golden King', as a companion plant for beans and other veg, but these paler, buttery flowers are also very lovely.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The garden's future?

It is so sad to be at this point after 23 years of working this wonderful, wonderful garden, day in day out, season by season, but the garden will have to close by May next year. This makes it the last time that anyone can see it in summer and autumn which is why I wanted to let everyone know and the response from the media has been hectic, a media storm albeit it regional. Headline of the Journal on Saturday (must be rare for a garden to take the front page, next to Andy Murray), filmed for BBC Look North on Saturday, live radio on Sunday and filmed for Look North again on Monday (in the pouring rain this time!). The garden has been busy with people coming to see, to give their commiserations, to enjoy it while they can and I have to face other people's sadness as well as my own.

My principal worry is where I can go from here, how to save plants that I have loved and nurtured for years and which tell stories of the people and places they have come from. To help others as well as myself, I have a book of 'Garden Memories' which anyone can contribute to in any form. The garden gives so much pleasure to so many people, has been written about worldwide, been in every national newspaper, most gardening magazines, in books and frequently on television. We have supplied thyme plants to Prince Charles, had visits from famous people, won awards, been in cookery programmes, you name it! The wildlife is amazing, the soil is unique, irreplacable, and the atmosphere that has been created is very special. I'm afraid that is all I can say for now at this stage but I just wanted to write something personal on my blog.... Susie

Saturday, 4 July 2009

They've fledged!

It would happen on a day when I wasn't in the garden but I've just heard that the great tit chicks have flown the nest, negotiating their way out of the cupboard! One was perched, cheepily, on the back of the bench in the greenhouse, another was on the vine and the third flew out of the door which I had left open last night as I was sure today would be the day (hunch correct). The parents were adept at coming and going through the grille above the glass but I thought this might be too much for the youngsters. What a relief after the panics (see previous blog entry) and all the toing and froing of visitors including a couple of coach parties. It's amazing what birds are capable of when they get used to having people around the whole time and although I shall miss seeing them nipping in and out of the cupboard when no-one was looking, I'm glad that they've made it!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Update on the great tit chicks

I promised an update on the great tit nest so here it is.

When I checked the cupboard this morning I found that the catch had been moved by someone and, seeing one or two flies going in through the gap above the door, I feared the worst. I had to open the door to see what damage had been done and found a dead chick outside a very ragged, mossy nest on the shelf and three very subdued chicks tucked in a corner of the nest. Concerned that the parents had abandoned them to starve because of interference, I feel desperately sad.

Still I waited from a distance and after a while there was one of the great tits bringing food again, thank heavens! I felt such relief, having watched them for so many days. I'd decided not to put a sign on the cupboard saying 'do not open, birds nesting' because that would very likely make someone want to open it.... but apparently there was a family with a teenager late on Thursday & he had come in the shop and said 'did you know there was a dead chick in the cupboard?' to which the person who was working questioned 'you didn't open it did you?' which he denied ... but it would be the only way of knowing. Anyway, drama over for now, and the birds must be tougher or more used to people than I thought. I've now put some discreet but strong poly tunnel mending tape over the catch to make anyone think twice about opening it....

wait for the next installment...

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Of peonies and quirky birds nests

Just now the peonies are in bloom, sumptuous bowls of cupped petals with yellow stamen hearts and gorgeous foliage. There are some wonderful rich colours, deep, deep red, crimson, sugar pink, white and salmon and the wilder natured herbaceous plants flow in and around them (pretty Geranium asphodeloides for example, with its tracery of stems and stars of pink and white). The lady's mantle is at its absolute best, frothy green flowers lapping over the gravel of the paths, breaking up the edges to create instant informality. As soon as it starts to go over, I will be cutting it ruthlessly back to prevent self seeding and to bring on new foliage.

Everywhere our abundant wildlife can be seen, blackbirds and thrushes eating the cherries (happily sacrificed to them in return for all the good work they do), blackcaps singing in the walnut, newts lazing in the pond and in the greenhouse a nest of great tits ..... in the cupboard. The birds get so used to visitors that they become very tame - our bird feeder is a great place to get close to nuthatches. And every now and then a bird nests in a quirky place - wrens in an old compost heap, duck on top of one of the walls, pheasant right next to the path. This year it's a great tit that has nested in the old wooden cupboard and flies in through a gap above the door! You can hear the chicks cheeping inside and I darent put up a notice saying 'do not open door because of bird nest' because if I draw attention to it, someone may do just that. They nip in and out when people are not looking, even though there is lots of coming and going in the greenhouse. These are not brilliant pictures but I didn't want to disturb them too much.... I'll give an update when they fledge!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Scented clematis and gypsies on their way to Appleby Horse Fair

I went over to the Lake District to see some gardening friends and the weather over there has been Mediterranean hot for some days. It has made some plants go over quickly and brought others out into flower, though watering has been a problem... not something normally associated with that area of the country! They have a beautiful clematis with a fabulous scent - Clematis montana wilsonii - that scrambles amongst shrubs below a tall retaining wall so that you stand at eye level with it and the scent wafts up to you. It's usually described as smelling of chocolate but I think it is spicy rather like sweet rocket.

Coming back through the village of Melmerby at the bottom of the Pennine escarpment, large numbers of gypsies and travellers were camped on the green, their horses tethered in the long grasses. It's a traditional stopping point after descending the long, twisting road from Hartside. The gypsies are on their way to the great Appleby Horse Fair, a place where families from all over the country can meet up and buy and sell horses amongst other things.

The main weekend of the Fair is always the first in June and this year Cumbria County Council have a series of school workshops and visits from Roma artists, storytellers etc. in the run up to the event. The Horse Fair is the largest in Britain and an amazing and vibrant event.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The garden comes second in Gardeners' World Magazine vote

Fast forward to June and this picture sums up the atmosphere of the walled garden, a lazy summer evening with backlit profusion of the wild and the cultivated mixed together. The garden seems to strike a chord with people; earlier this week our postman of three years had to deliver a parcel and, finding the shop door closed, opened the magical, paint-peeling door in the high wall. He stood transfixed by the garden, bowled over by it, saying 'I never knew what was behind the wall'. I loved that, it was like the secret garden, the sudden discovery, the enchantment.

Anyway, here is how The Journal reported the news that the garden was voted 2nd in the north in Gardeners' World magazine.

Small garden is a big hit

A GARDEN in Northumberland that is dwarfed by North of England rivals has seen off the big boys in a national competition.

BBC Gardener’s World magazine ran a contest in which more than 6,000 people voted for their favourite garden in each region.

Of 28 gardens in the North, Chesters Walled Garden at Chollerford in Northumberland came second in the poll.

The two-acre, 18th Century garden on the line of Hadrian’s Wall was bettered only by the 56-acre RHS Harlow Carr Garden in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, which attracts 220,000 visitors a year.

In the top five, Chesters was chosen above Newby Hall in Ripon, North Yorkshire, which has 25 acres and 115,000 visitors, Liverpool University’s Ness Botanical Gardens at South Wirral with 64 acres and 100,000 visitors, and Castle Howard in North Yorkshire on 1,000 acres and 200,000 visitors.

Chesters also came above top Cumbrian gardens Levens Hall, Muncaster and Dalemain.

The Northumberland garden has been cared for by Susie White for the last 23 years.

Herbs are a major feature and it holds the national collections of marjoram, thyme and burnet.

Susie says: “I am chuffed to have done so well and amazed that we came above gardens of the size, quality and history of places like Castle Howard .

“Chesters is miniscule compared to some of the Northern gardens, which have big visitor databases through which people can be encouraged to vote.

“I think people feel relaxed here and have an affection for the garden.

“ I know that the garden touches a special place in people’s hearts because of its atmosphere, natural planting, with wild flowers among the rare perennials, wildlife and the scent of the herbs, and this is reflected in what gets written in the visitors’ book, but I was thrilled and surprised that so many people had voted for the garden as their favourite place.

“ As an example of the amazing wildlife, a wren came into the shop and stood on the visitors’ book.”

An annual bird count has been carried out once a month for 12 years by a local ornithologist and has just topped 70 different species.

“That is not bad for two acres and shows that what and how we plant is successful,” said Susie.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Walled garden bird count reaches 70 species!!

The walled garden, as regular readers of this blog will know, has the most amazing wildlife, encouraged by the range of plants, nest sites, hollow walls, nectar plants and sheer fullness. For many years, ornithologist Alan Todd has conducted a regular bird count, chronicling the monthly occurrence of different species, a fascinating record. the number has been creeping up and has now topped 70 species!! He saw a crossbill in the late winter and that has added to the dynamic list which includes hawfinch, long tailed tit, green & greater spotted woodpeckers, flycatcher, brambling.... I won't list them all here but if you come to the garden, there is a laminated sheet of Excel in the shop showing which months the different birds have been recorded.

There have been oddities over the years: the mallard who decided to nest on top of the ivy covered wall, another mallard who let her ducklings drop down into a sunken greenhouse so we had to put a ramp in, the pheasant in my previous blog with her large brood amusing the visitors, a pheasant who laid eggs right next to the path by the pond (not many brains), the amazing site of 7 nuthatches on the feeder at once. What's in a number, really, but with the list stuck at 68 for a while, I was delighted when we suddenly made 70!

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Harrogate Spring Flower Show

The day after my trip to Harlow Carr (see previous posting) I went to the Harrogate Spring Flower Show, a visit I haven't been able to make for a few years because of being so busy running my own garden. After winter, it felt fabulous, all those
colours and scents, enthusiasm and contented looking crowds enjoying great weather. There was so much to see that I was there all day, six hours on my feet, so no wonder I got diverted at one point from the plants to buy a pair of shoes from my favourite company, El Natura Lista, a Spanish firm that make amazingly comfortable eco shoes, dyed used plant material. In the exhibition halls there were banks and banks of colour from tulips, daffs, agapanthus, pelargoniums, carnations, lilies, all blowsy and immaculately presented. But it was the softer plants that I really focused on, delicate woodland plants set off amongst moss, dry leaves and wood, and the sumptuous displays of vegetables too. A stand that particularly caught my attention was from Grow with Joe, a company from Leeds, who based their theme around India with a red fabrics and an image of the Taj Mahal in front of which rose tiers of garlic, chillies, aubergines, all full of colour. There was a definite trend towards edible produce, vegetable growing and even soft fruit - Rogers of Pickering, who also displayed bulbs (see photo) created a display of fruit bushes, rhubarb, strawberries, figs, quince, vines etc for the first time at a spring flower show in response to the enormous demand they have recently had for all types of fruit. If you want to read more about fruit and vegetables and the rest of the show, just copy & paste this link on The Journal website if you want to see what I wrote in the newspaper about the show....

I thought there was some tat in the outside stands, obvious imports from China, naff garden figurines and a surprisingly small amount of eco products. I found a system for distributing rainwater round the garden, a producer of beautiful split oak & hazel panels, a seaweed fertiliser from Shetland and one or two other good quality and interesting products but I thought there might have been more. It was inside that really was a delight with stalls such as Nick Hamilton's from Barnsdale Gardens (the late Geoff Hamilton's son who now runs the garden with his wife, Sue). Others were the faultess display by the Alpine Garden Society, euphorbias by Goldensfield, grasses from Eversley Nursery, such variety and too much to squeeze into one blog. More on the Journal website and good luck to anyone going tomorrow when the plants are sold off in late afternoon!!

Friday, 24 April 2009

A spring visit to Harlow Carr garden

On Thursday I joined a Press Briefing Day to the RHS Harlow Carr Garden near Harrogate that was arranged by the Garden Media Guild, a lovely spring day of sunshine and blue skies. I haven't been to the garden for a few years and there have been many developments; the old, small alpine house demolished and a new one built on rising ground looking down into the valley and the woods beyond. It's not quite open yet but we had an early look, the inside being artfully laid out with alpines nestling among rock and gravel beds, the outside ready to be planted with more alpines in two long raised borders. This view shows the new structure seen through the lattice of woven willowwork (Phil Bradley, a willow weaver has done many pieces for the garden including a very popular galleon and several arbours)

Down at the streamside, the planting is being redeveloped; some of the old repetitions are being replaced with more variety and the curious long line of benches all facing the same way like a beachside promenade has gone. It's such a fresh time of year, exemplified by these shuttlecock ferns and skunk cabbage, exuberant, green and lively. In the woodland behind, rhododendrons and camellias were flowering away, rising up against the blue sky. Glades have been opened up in the planting to encourage bats, leaves are left rather than cleared away, all in line with the
policy now of encouraging wildlife. Very few chemicals are used at Harlow Carr, none in the lawns (brilliant, I think!) which are considered green spaces, and 100 birds have been counted with a butterfly survey due to take place this year too.

As part of the awareness of the needs of wildlife, the garden shelters have been clad with interesting materials. This was done by Matthew Wilson (see my previous blog) and this is an example - the sides filled in with timbers and stones amongst
which sedums and ferns have been planted, the roof is planted and a delightful detail is the wooden beam over the door, drilled with holes to encourage insects.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Green flowers and other garden gems

April is a time when, instead of dramatic swathes of tall perennials, there are many beautiful little gems growing in the borders. It's a time for squatting down and looking closely at small plants, admiring their delicate form and colour. I love the curious green 'flowers' of Hacquetia epipactus, a plant that makes a neat clump with yellow flowers amongst lime-green bracts, endearing and unusual. It is grown in our West Wall border, facing east and cool in summer, with leaf mould and moisture.

Nearby companions are the lovely baby-pink, double primrose, 'Sue Jervis', a particular favourite of mine, the shapely bells of Fritillaria pyrenaica which is in bud right now and the serene purity of the extra double flowers of bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis 'Flore Pleno'.
This very beautiful plant has dark red twiggy looking rhizomes and you have to be careful to note where they are in winter so as not to dig them up. Flowers emerge before leaves but these too are attractive, having pretty, scalloped edges and a rather glaucous shade of green. A Japanese wineberry arches over these plants, held back against the wall, its bare stems covered in tiny, red prickles, lovely when the sun shines through them. Later in the season we eat its small, red fruits which are delicious with ice-cream!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Lucky Spot returns to Belsay - through the garden to see the stunning crystal horse

This week I went to Belsay Hall for a local tourism meeting and we were given a preview of Stella McCartney's stunningly beautiful crystal horse 'Lucky Spot'. I saw it several times at Belsay in 2004; it was created specifically for the space in which it leaps, in the 14th century ruined castle and was made as part of 'Fashion at Belsay'. It was so much loved that English Heritage wanted to bring it back and it will be on show to the public from Easter.

We walked through first the Winter Garden with its white-stemmed birches, March flowering heaths, hellebores and rhodies, then along the twisting paths of the Quarry Garden, deep below the sandstone cliff faces of the quarry that provided stone for the Hall. Then to the squat, strong castle and up onto the first floor room where 'Lucky Spot' was lit by a high window, shattering multicoloured lights all over the stone walls through its many crystals. There are over 8,000 Swarovski crystals and we marvelled at how this delicate chandelier had been taken down, cleaned, packed away and then re-installed. As you walk slowly round it, it drifts in and out between solidity and transience, sometimes forming, sometimes dissolving and scattering rainbow patterns over the floor. Its on view from 10th April until spring 2010.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Spring pruning jobs

In the north of England there are some pruning jobs that are best left til spring to protect the plants from cold weather and I usually carry these out towards the end of March. This week I pruned the hardy fuschias, Fuschia magellenica and its pretty white form, which makes large shrubs by the end of a season. They do best if all those woody stems are cut back hard to about eight inches so that all the growth is fresh each year and it then flowers very well in late summer. We also cut down all the Verbena bonariensis, (see previous posts) having left the stems on over winter to protect them. Rue is another plant that I have only just pruned back, cutting this down to about half its size at 18 inches, because it too can suffer up here in the north if cut back in the autumn. The same goes for the later flowering lavenders and these hedges have just been run over with the hedgetrimmers.

Yesterday we pruned our long line of buddleias, grown in the garden for the major attraction of massed butterflies as well as their heady scent. I always cut the buddleias back in the autumn to about five foot for a number of reasons; it tidies them up and prevents root rock if it is very windy, it stops them seeding all over the place and it means less to cart away in spring. I then prune them again in March. It may seem cruel but they grow fast and it means that when they do flower in late summer the blooms are at a good height for enjoying their colour, scent and butterfly visitors. If you leave buddleias unpruned, the flowers end up far too high above your head to be able to properly enjoy them.

You can see how it is done in this picture and with a bit of warm weather they will have disguised the woody stems very quickly with fresh foliage. The pruners are a new lightweight pair made by Oxo (I suppose they have gone logically from Good Grips kitchenware to ergonomic garden tools). Having gardened all my life, I am very aware of the importance of avoiding repetitive strain and am always looking for tools that are easy to use. Long handled pruners have all their weight on the end and after an hour of use can be pretty tiring, so these light handles are great. The hand grips are much more comfortable than my old pair and the blades easily sliced through the tough buddleia stems. I could then go over all the narrow stems with my trusty Felcos which I had serviced over the winter (they came back good as new!) and the whole buddleia hedge looks neat and tidy. It was a lovely sunny day, with the odd bumble bee in the chinodoxas and a comma butterfly in the greenhouse, brought out of hibernation by the heat through the glass.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Bird count tops 70! Garden opens tomorrow

The garden opens for the season tomorrow so we are rushing round doing some last minute things to get ready - but there is still time for me to post on my blog and to include this lovely picture from yesterday of drifts of chinodoxas in the border in front of the old espalier apple tree. These pretty little blue flowers self seed amongst the herbaceous plants and spend the rest of the summer dormant whilst the borders fill out with greenery and flowers. Then when everything is just starting to emerge after winter, they are cheerfully there, spreading across the border and providing nectar for early bumble bees.

Each year the amazing bird count creeps up and with two new species recorded by Alan Todd over the winter, it has just topped 70!! One of the new birds was a crossbill which is exciting - I think it is quite incredible that a small piece of ground, given all the right conditions of shelter, nest sites, food and water, can attract such a range of birds. Birders bring your binoculars!

I have just cut down the Verbena bonariensis in the formal beds, saving this job til the last moment and leaving the dead sticks on all winter to protect them. Today I'll cut down the wall germander, rue and lavender - all left thankfully over the winter which turned out to be harder than the last few years. I find in Northumberland that these pruning jobs are best left til March, along with buddleias and hardy fuschias.

The greenhouse is full of young plants ready for sale and daffodils bloom under the glass. The rosemary 'Tuscan Blue' flowers prolifically next to the pale pink of nectarine flowers against the white wall. All just ready and poised waiting for visitors to come and enjoy.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

A freezing walk to find a very rare lichen!

This is a slight digression from the pampered confines of the walled garden to look
at what used to be known as one of the 'lower plants', that is lichens, liverworts, mosses and ferns. Today I joined a lichen walk organised by the Natural History Society of Northumbria to look for a very rare species that was last seen and photographed some 14 years ago. High up on the Allendale fells is a famous site, part of a triple SI, in a craggy limestone ravine in a bleakly beautiful landscape. You need permission of the landowner to visit as it is not access land. As we got out of our warm cars it began to snow, blown in striking wind into our faces as we set off on a long, uphill track. Brian Coppins had come down from the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh for this walk; he is senior lichenologist there, a past president of the British Lichen Society, and has been working on a new Lichen Flora for Britain. Also on the walk was Mike Sutcliffe, another leading expert, who works for Natural England and who has created a fabulous website of lichen photos, more of which later.

There are no records yet for some of the area we walked through, and there was much peering at the lichens on a typical sandstone, drystone wall - the sort of thing
people might easily walk past without a thought. It was seriously cold and as we started to descend into the ravine of Yew Crags on the Wellhope Burn, the snow was driving into my eyeballs like tiny splinters! I don't know why it should be called Yew Crags as there were no yew trees and it is a gorge rather than crags, but the limestone cliffs were unexpectedly dramatic. As well as being home to several rare types of lichen, there were two ferns, the green spleenwort and the hard shield fern. We stopped here for lunch and the snow came down prompting one of the members to tell us that the largest snowflake ever recorded was 38cms across and seen in Montana! When you really start looking, there is huge variety in the form and colours of these underrated plants - from the hairy, silver tresses growing on trees, the brittle miniature tree shapes of Cladonia portenosa, the favourite of model railway enthusiasts to the grey, orange or yellow of the rock hugging types.

Setting off down the gorge again we were hunting for the only place in England that
the rare Gyalecta ulmi grows. As it once grew on elm trees and all the elm trees have died, this sole survivor, the size of a handspan, has managed to live on the rockface but finding it among all the cliffs was the difficulty! It was eventually seen on the wrong side of the river and could only be seen close-to by getting wet feet or having wellies on... It formed a grey encrustation against the rock and someone irreverently commented that it looked like a handful of cement had been thrown against a wall! Luckily I was one of the two people wearing wellies and with one foot on either side of the burn and one hand supporting me against the rock, I was able to see it close to. It was too much to try and photograph at that angle, so this is the best picture I could manage from the safety of the other bank.

There are more beautiful lichens admittedly and I absolutely love Mike Sutcliffe's website, - you can scroll down his picture index which is laid
out in a grid of squares and be dazzled by the sheer decorative qualities of colour, shape and texture. For any artist, it is a fantastic resource for inspiration. I can imagine it being of use to textile artists, 'A' level and art school students, painters and printmakers. We left the gorge and climbed back up again, thankfully warming up with the uphill walk, and the sky cleared, the wide valley views leading the eye to patches of blue amongst clouds in the north. Someone commented that this was the most extreme of the Natural History Society's meetings, so if you want to join, their other events cannot be so cold! I lay in a hot bath with a cup of tea and looked at my 3 foot high bird's nest fern in its pot in the bathroom, glad that it was no longer called a 'lower plant'.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

New Gardening with Matthew Wilson

Having spent a hardworking Saturday morning in the walled garden it was a bit of a treat to be able to sit and listen to Matthew Wilson giving a lecture in Corbridge to some 400 people. Organised by the combined Corbridge, Stocksfield and Wylam gardening clubs, his talk had the same name as his book, New Gardening: How to Garden in a Changing Climate. Based on his practical experience as curator of RHS gardens Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr, as well as his private garden at home, Matthew's philosophy of gardening has become honed into harmony with the specific environment of a garden and its unique microclimate whilst growing plants that will thrive in its particular conditions. There were many zeitgeist aspects of his talk, all put into action in his time of running these two major gardens: recycling materials, making composts, gardening for wildlife, careful water use, naturalistic planting schemes. He has wanted to write this book for some ten years. In these days of disposable culture, he believes that gardeners have a rather different approach; one of skill, patience, learning and and a different way of looking at the world. He believes that in a recession, there can be a renewed interest in gardening, words that echo something my friend, historic garden specialist, Nick Owen said only a couple of weeks ago when he gave a lecture on Capability Brown during a snowstorm...

Matthew is a natural raconteur and had the audience laughing at his reminiscences. At one point he made everyone in the hall stand up and say "I love aphids" - it felt like some corporate training session, not that I've ever been on one, having been self-employed as a gardener all my life! Point being that without the prey, the predator such as lacewing or ladybird wouldn't succeed. I could add blue tit because they seem to love delicately picking aphids off plants in my garden. He urged everyone to buy local, a point I couldn't agree with more! It often amazes me that we get visitors from all over Britain but local people seem to forget that they have a specialist nursery nearby and will go miles to a huge garden centre.

Received wisdom was challenged; why take up tulip bulbs when, given the right, dry conditions, they will come up every year and, in his book, there are examples of sensible spades that are not back-breaking. Why on earth are the majority of spades and forks still based on mining tools with short handles designed to used kneeling down! Looking through New Gardening, there are plenty of very practical ideas with clear illustrations making it a good reference book. I particularly liked the log pile bench and the adapted shed which uses logs end on and ferns planted vertically in the crevices. Something I haven't seen before are 'rammed earth walls' for raised vegetable beds.

Many of the techniques that Matthew writes about I use in Chesters Walled Garden; not watering or fertilising, for example, so that the borders are self-supporting. I do, however, largely 'put the garden to bed' so that I can have a bit of a winter break, much needed after the season, though I leave the grasses standing (great for overwintering insects) and the teasels for the goldfinches. And that season is just about to begin again as we open on March 21st so although I had a welcome rest this afternoon at his lecture, it's back to work preparing the garden.....

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Hadrian's Wall geology and a break from gardening

The plants are changing so little at the moment, the snowdrops two weeks behind, the aconites barely opening because of lack of sun, so I thought I would post something about a day course I went on yesterday. Run by Hadrian's Wall Heritage, it was put on to give tourism businesses some insight into the area, so we met on a dull, low cloud day but at least it wasn't raining or snowing and it was relatively warm!

Led by geologist, Richard Holmes, we spent the day in a small area around the spectacular Walltown Crags, scene of past quarrying of the hard rock of the Whin Sill and a place where Hadrian's Wall does those dramatic undulations that make it so widely photographed. Here's my own photo to add to those legions (what an appropriate word) but of course it was a very dull, uninspiring day photographically. We learnt much about the geology of this wonderful part of Northumberland, the effect of the ice sheet, the glacial erratics it left behind, the sandwiched layers of sedimentary rocks and the use that they have been put to locally over the years. But the highlights for me were often the smaller things; the tiny holes, no larger than a 5p piece, in the Whin Sill that show were gases had made their way towards its top edge - and their word, vesicles, a good one for crosswords.

Particularly fascinating was being able to see the point at which the intrusive rock of the Whin Sill met the layer of sandstone in a shallow quarry feature on the north side of the Wall. This whole area below the crags is Access Land and a great
viewpoint from which to look up at the uplifting mass of columnar dolerite. Another good detail was the current bedding - as in the photograph - which shows where the deposits that created the sandstone where moved this way and that by an ancient sea. The connection with the garden is still there in some of the plants that I spotted as we walked about, wildflowers that have herbal properties or that I grow because I like them, but it was great to have someone else do the talking and impart their knowledge for once!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Myrtle in the snow & biodynamic gardening

Yet more snow, which is why I haven't blogged for over a week. Looking back, my last post was full of new shoots and promise! The snow was a magical transformation to start with, becoming more and more of an interruption as it lingered, preventing garden work. In the picture you can see the east wall (west facing) which is ivy covered, a wonderful resource for all kinds of wildlife, to birds for nesting, to insects for nectar and shelter, with its flowers and berries a magnet for wasps, butterflies, bees and hover flies. The bench is a sunny place to sit, warm even in winter if the sun is out.

To the left is a myrtle, Luma chequen, which in past winters I have always fleeced. Early on its life, I had it damaged by frost several times, each time having to prune it back so it could re-shoot; I never actually lost it but it curtailed its size. After several warm winters, it is now a large shrub, and this winter for the first time I decided to let it take its chance as it is really too big to easily wrap up! So of course it proves to be a harder winter than some, but so far it is ok.... It's on the edge of the Roman garden and when I take visitors round, I show them how its leaves smell sweet like bubble gum.

Our vegetable garden and cut flowers are grown by biodynamic methods, about which I have written before, and I recently came across a new blog which is written by the author of one of the books that we follow, In Tune with the Moon. You can find it at (there's a link also on the right hand page of this blog) so it will be interesting to see how their garden fares over a season of growing.

Monday, 26 January 2009

'Fireglow' colour and more on the contorted hazel

There's a bit of warmth in the sun today and the birds are responding with activity - blackbirds singing, goldfinches busy on the feeder, a wren darting about in and out of bushes, the lazy sound of pigeons crooning in the pines. Snowdrops and aconites are in flower, the first fresh leaves of wild garlic are pushing through the leaf litter in the woods and dark red hellebores are in fullsome bud. But one of the earliest herbaceous plants to push through the soil is Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow', looking jewelled when the light shines behind it, its overlapping leaves a mixture of soft jade green and vivid pink. There are several times in the year when you are repaid for allowing this vigorous plant into a border and now is one of them. The buds are joyful and a rich colour for January.

I had a comment from Merlotti on my last but one posting, requesting more information on the contorted hazel, so I am adding a postscript to that one. A long time ago I read a biography of that wonderful, generous gardener, E A Bowles, and one of the many things that stuck in my mind was his love of the eccentric plant. At his garden of Myddelton House, north of London, he enjoyed growing some of the oddities of the plant world in what he termed his 'lunatic asylum'. A hazel that was growing in an unusual way in a Gloucestshire hedge in the 1860's was noticed by a Victorian gardener, Canon Ellacombe, and knowing that its quirkiness would delight his friend, E A Bowles, he took cuttings and propagated it. This original plant is still growing at Myddelton House. In the early 20th century it became known as Harry Lauder's walking stick after the Scottish entertainer who had a twisted walking stick, but this name was attached some decades after it was first discovered.

Although it is relatively slow-growing, it can take up quite a bit of room when mature, technically up to 15ft high though most large specimens I have seen are usually about 8-10, and there needs to be enough room for its crazy, squiggling branches. It is sad, as with so many shrubs, when it is planted in too small a space, because it is a shame to prune the madness out of its shape just to make it fit. Because it is at its best in winter, the summer leaves not being very attractive, it can be planted with tall herbaceous plants in front that will grow up and hide it later - for example, fennel, cardoon, asters, joe pye weed or tall grasses. Hope this is the information you wanted, Merlotti - I got rather carried away!!

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Winter colour - Rubus cockburnianus

The powdery white stems of the immensely thorny Rubus cockburinanus really sing out vividly at this time of the year, contrasting dramatically with the still fresh green of the bamboo that stands next to them. With its dreadful suckering habit and vigorous root system, Rubus can be a big mistake if planted in the wrong place! It is worth growing for its winter stems if you can cope with having to dig out suckers when they venture too far and if you can put up with the lashing branches as you try to weed under it in summer!

A month ago, we donned the thickest gloves and, using long handled pruners, cut out all the old, dark stems - a tedious, scratchy job - but the reward is this lovely, clear, open framework where the stems crisscross like some natural trellis work. We took care not to rub off the white bloom that covers the red stems and makes them so visually interesting in early January.

There are buds in the snowdrops, flowers on the Mahonia x 'Charity' and sky blue flowers on the rosemary 'Tuscan Blue' in the greenhouse. The robins are happy when we rake up leaves and dart in and out quickly spotting the tiniest grubs. Some of the grasses are starting to shoot away at the base, the Miscanthus having thin pointed buds posied for takeoff, so things are already stirring in the garden.