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.