Monday, 30 April 2012

Harrogate Spring Flower Show

The rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the keen gardeners who did attend the eagerly-awaited spring horticultural show. We always arrive early on the first day – Thursday – and recover from the drive by stopping off at Cripple Valley Golf Club, adjacent to the show ground, for breakfast before launching ourselves into the main flower hall. 

Tulips en masse

The variety and splendour of the exhibits takes one's breathe away!  

Clematis alpina
Despite the difficulties this spring in ensuring plants were in peak condition, the displays were as magnificent as ever. 

Exactly how the exhibitors manage to ensure that the plants are in perfect condition always amazes me. There were varieties of clematis alpina with their fairy-bonnet flowers cheek-by-jowl with the magnificent crown fritillarias together with tulips in a madcap variety of shape and colour.


Crown fritillarias

Varieties of tomatoes

The vegetable displays both put my allotment to shame yet at the same time inspire me to do better. My tomato seedlings are only just visible in the greenhouse whereas those at Harrogate were ripe enough to eat there and then. 


A cornucopia of vegetables

Despite not needing to buy any plants, I did manage 
to discover a few that I thought would enhance  Pablo’s garden – mainly plants for dry shade – together with a pygmy water lily for my tiny pond which was an early birthday present to me from my friend Terry.

You've heard of  'roses grow on you'...

If only the rain would cease I could get planting, inspired by this chap who may, however,  be taking his carbon footprint a step too far!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


Hope’s gentle gem…

The garden is becoming very blue with bluebells beginning to scent the air and the forget-me-not (myosotis) in abundance. The personal emblem of Henry of Lancaster, it was believed that whosoever wore myosotis would never be forgotten. It was Coleridge, in his poem The Keepsake, a poem of sadness, who referred to -

Forget-me-nots nestling in the border

That blue and bright-eyed flower of 
the brook,
Hope’s gentle gem, the sweet Forget-me-not’.

It grows in other parts of Europe where it is loved in the same way as the English love the violet and the primrose. Myosotis, or mouse ear, is so called because the small, woolly leaves resemble mouse ears. Biennial, it contrasts well in the cottage garden with tulips and polyanthus and despite liking moist soil it grows and seeds with gay abandon in my rather dry borders.

In my allotment I treated as a weed as it sprouts everywhere – a weed is apparently defined as a plant growing in the wrong place! Even so, I do leave a random area between the sunflowers and the globe artichokes (grown to admire rather than to harvest) and allow the delicate flowers to self-seed at will, a pleasing contrast to the dark greens of the spring vegetables in their rather uniform rows.

Twinges in my back remind me that allotment digging may be good exercise but it necessitates an ever longer soak in a hot bath these days, despite being both invigorating and satisfying.

I do definitely concur with Jane Loudon, however, who, on the subject of Victorian lady gardeners in her book Gardening for Ladies written in 1840, wrote ‘She, (the female gardener)  will not only have the satisfaction of seeing the garden being created, as it were, by her own hands, but she will find her health and spirits wonderfully improved by the exercise and by the reviving smell of the fresh earth’.

The author had obviously not experienced allotment digging!)


A plant with flowers that remind one of the forget-me-not, and one in which I delight at this time of year is the omphalodes (Venus navel-wort). Another favourite of the cottage garden, its flowers are a brilliant blue, hence its common name of Bright-eyed Mary. It grows merrily in both sun and shade and spreads to make a wonderful carpet of blue in March and April and makes an excellent companion plant when grown together with some of the spring bulbs.

Such a wonderful time of year when, as in the style of Picasso, the garden’s ‘blue period’ most definitely lifts the spirits- Pablo cat agrees wholeheartedly!

Pablo guarding the front door

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Owl and the Pussy Cat

According to Edward Lear

when 'the owl and the pussy cat went to sea … they dined on mince and slices of quince which they ate with a runcible spoon’

I have a quince tree – cydonia – at the bottom of my garden. It was given to me in 2006 by my sister-in-law as a result of a query I posed regarding the fruit of the ornamental variety of quince – chaenomeles. These are very attractive prickly shrubs, ideal to use as a hedge as they deter unwelcome visitors while at the same time hosting a glory of red, pink or white flowers depending on the variety, followed by golden fruits. I have two in the small front garden.

ornamental quince flowers
My query was, could the fruit of the ornamental quince be used in cooking in the same way that the fruit of the quince tree proper can? Nowhere could I find the answer until the panel of Gardeners’ Question Time in 2007 visited nearby Trevelyn College in Durham to record a programme. I attended with a friend and actually asked if the owl and the pussycat could have taken the fruit of the ornamental quince with them on their journey. To my delight the answer was yes, they may well have done!

None of the panel appeared to enjoy cooking the fruit, which resembles a dimpled apple, as it is extremely hard and takes quite a while to cook. However, it has a most delicious smell and they recommended adding it, whole, to bowls of pot pourri to help perfume a room. This I do regularly at Christmas time and it certainly does enhance the mouth-watering aromas of the festive season. A generous neighbour allows me to harvest her crop and I keep intending to make quince jelly (membrillo) or chutney and return her kindness by presenting her with a jar at Christmas but alas, the road to hell… Maybe this Christmas!
quince tree proper - cydonia - in leaf in April

 I have, however, made a most delicious apple and quince cake which appears in Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook. It mixes windfall apples and quince into a basic sponge mixture (substitute ground almonds for half of the quantity of flour). 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time 50g of flaked almonds is added to a mixture of 30g of melted butter and 25g of sugar, together with the juice and jest of one lemon. This is then spread over the top of the cake which is returned to the oven and cooked for a further 15 minutes. Delicious served with cream or ice cream.

My quince tree proper bore delicate, almost poppy-like flowers for the first time last year but no fruit appeared. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this season although April has been disappointing with its extremely cold, frosty  nights. It will be really interesting to compare the ornamental with the original variety for both appearance and taste, however, and I remain ever hopeful.

What is a runcible spoon I wonder?

Monday, 16 April 2012

Gardeners' Question Time

Stars in the Garden - in Daylight

In the final question posed to the team on this week’s Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 the members were asked, if they had to save just one plant from their garden which would they chose? Aptly, for this time of year, Pippa Greenwood chose magnolia stellata.

Magnolia stellata
Ideal for small gardens, I have one which reaches to the top of the summer house where it gains some protection from the spring frosts. The charming, spider-like white flowers have a delicate perfume and give a succession of blossoms from March onwards. I have to prune it back quite severely in order to paint the summerhouse in late autumn but, nothing daunted, it doesn’t bear a grudge but greets me each spring with yet more of its elegant blooms.

Magnolia stellata flowers

The magnolia family are all, without exception, glamorous additions to any garden and I also managed, unkindly I fear, to squeeze a magnolia soulangeana with its goblet-shaped flowers into the right-hand border. Unkindly, because this magnolia, which could grow into quite a substantial and spectacular tree, has to compete with other shrubs in the border and thus its growth is stunted as it reaches precariously towards the lawn to try to gain extra light. I must treat it with more respect this year and give it proper support with a strong stake once the flowers make way for the later leaves at the end of April.

The well-known Independent garden columnist and tulip specialist, Anna Pavord, when appearing at the Hexham Book Festival last year, told the audience that when she moved house and had to leave the garden which had been 30 years in the making, the only plants she took with her were the snowdrops given to her as a present by her mother when Anna first began to create her garden. I can understand why. Many plants in my garden were given to me by keen, local gardeners whom I remember each year when the plants make their annual entrance – yellow loosestrife, courteously of Mrs Wilkinson; pink Japanese anemones from Neville’s father, Jack Alderson; southernwood via Pauline’s father, Mr. Harness; an asparagus fern from Margaret’s father, Vesta, whom I never met yet the fern allows me somehow to ‘remember’ him with both affection and gratitude. Those friends are long gone yet will live on forever in my garden.

The radio 4 question put me in mind of George Bernard Shaw who, when asked which painting he would save if he were to be in The National Gallery were it to catch fire, responded with his usual wit - The one nearest the door!’

Keep smiling.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Just scratching the surface

'The deeper a man digs for knowledge in his garden the more he realises that he has only scratched the surface'

Easter chicks

Not only is April a busy month in the flower garden but, traditionally, it heralds the start – in the North certainly – of serious work on the allotment front; most of which has already been dug over and perennial weeds removed, ready for the serious ask of potato planting which is traditionally done here on Good Friday.

Seed potatoes had already been purchased and placed in egg boxes with the ends with the most ‘eyes’ uppermost. They were then kept in my Two Hoots shed at the allotment until new shoots had begun to sprout – this is known as chitting.  I’m growing first earlies – International Kidney (the Jersey Royal potato) together with Sharpe’s Express  and the Saxon variety of second earlies. I’ve decided not to plant any maincrop potatoes this year and to use the space saved for more purple sprouting broccoli and extra rows of leeks, both of which will withstand the winter months and be used to make welcoming soup early next year.

Flicking through Niall Edworthy’s The Curious Gardener’s Almanac I read that the baked potato man was a common sight in London streets selling hot potatoes to passersby. It was estimated that in the nineteenth century there were more than 250 itinerant hot potato sellers plying their trade. Edworthy states that ‘Most English gentlemen wouldn’t be seen dead eating a vulgar potato in the street, but they often bought them as hand-warmers during the harsh winters of the time’.

This took me back to my teens when, on Bonfire Night, the family, including my young cousins – my little Aunt’s grandchildren – would all go to watch the firework display in Spennymoor’s Jubilee Park. My Aunt would have sausages and onions baking in the oven ready for us to eat on our return.

She had already baked jacket potatoes in the coal oven which, when wrapped in foil, were given to the little ones to carry in their pockets to keep their mittened hands warm. The temptation was usually too much for them, however, and the potatoes were usually eaten long before the bonfire was lit! (One of those little tots celebrates his 50th birthday this weekend. Unbelievable).
As last year, I have taken garden guru Monty Don’s advice and planted salad crops – Little Gem and Salad Bowl lettuce together with rows of radishes – on top of the rows of potatoes. These will be ready to harvest well before the potatoes are ready to be earthed up and this is an excellent way to cram as many plants as possible in the space available. 

Assorted seed pa
In the home garden the greenhouse is full of seed trays, planted up with both annuals – jewel mixed nasturtiums, sunflowers, helichrysum, larkspur (inspired by beds of them seen at Highgrove last year), bells of Ireland,  cosmos (Sensation and Purity) sweet peas (the original Cupani together with Matuca; greenhouse plants – cayenne chilli peppers, Spanish mixed peppers, cucumbers, and 9 different types of tomato; in addition to vegetables to be planted out later at the allotment – sweetcorn Swift, courgettes (the yellow Jemmer and the traditional green zucchini, calabrese, Musselburgh leeks, butternut squash and celery.

I still have some sowing to do – herbs, especially different forms of basil and the wonderfully fragrant coriander, and mixed Tuscan and Provençal salads which I grow in window boxes placed near the kitchen door for ease of harvest. There is nothing nicer than popping outside and snipping young, tender salad crops to add to a lunchtime sandwich. The effort is minor and the cost is minimal.

There can be no comparison with the extortionate, pre-washed, pre-packed, tasteless ‘salads’ available in supermarkets. Why not try growing it for yourself?

My mouth is watering already!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Survival of the fittest

Easter uprising

The resilience of the garden never ceases to amaze.

glorious narcissus

After the extreme weather of last week many of the plants remained  bowed down days after their snowy burden has melted away, yet the daffodils, or Lent Lilies as the wild form of the narcissus was originally known, made their own miraculous resurrection, blowing their trumpets skywards to  announce the arrival of Easter.

Sadly the shrubby pieris has been nipped badly by the frost but, fortunately, I recorded its rosy glory before Jack made his unwelcome visit. I’ve fingers crossed that it will make a full recovery.

Peeping out from under the garden gate meanwhile is the delightful wild violet – viola odorata - whose flowers have been used for cake decoration and as a sweetener since mediaeval times. Candied violets are made by dipping the flower heads in a solution of gum Arabic and rose water, then they are sprinkled with caster sugar and placed in a warm oven to dry.
the shy sweet violet

In France the violet has always been revered. Shortly before his exile Napoleon was said to have picked the sweet violet flowers from Josephine’s grave and they were found in a locket he was wearing on his death bed.

I pray, what flowers are these?
The pansies this;
O, that's for lovers thoughts
                                           Ben Johnson 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

And we shall have snow

And we shall have snow...

Fairies at work again

No wonder the English talk about the weather all the time. Last week basking in temperatures higher than Athens and this week the wind-chill factor brings snow and ice. And this in April - a month associated with sunshine and those delicate rain showers that help spring clean the borders and put a shine on the faces of even the most sceptical of shrubs.
Tiny leaves of epimediums
Plants pushing their way skywards are warmly welcomed into the bosom of April whose bounty knows no bounds. In the extremely dry right-hand border of the garden under the old holly tree the epimediums are beginning to show. Perfect ground cover, they spread like wildfire and produce delicate, pale yellow flowers which contrast well with dicentra spectabilis, commonly known as Bleeding Heart because of the drooping, heart-shaped flowers, which appear at the end of April and continue unabashed until the end of June.

Dicentra just beginning to show
Clematis armandii

April sunshine brings out the best of the evergreen clematis armandii at the bottom of the garden, with its wonderfully 
delicate flowers smelling appetisingly of vanilla. 

This is a vigorous climber which needs to be kept in check but which will flower a second time in September if you are very fortunate.

Likewise the graceful small tree amelanchior, full of blossom now in April, which also rewards us later in the year with the most wonderful autumn colour.

Amelanchior in the snow

A miniature Japanese flowering cherry holds forth in my minute version of Vita Sackville-West’s ‘white garden’, a companion plant for the wild garlic leaves whose sword-like leaves are just beginning to thrust through the undergrowth. 

Elsewhere the borders are springing into life. Pale colours dominate currently – white and lemon and gentle pink – but soon they will be transformed with forget-me-not blue in abundance and the azure shades of the bluebells with their heady perfume.

Eat your heart out Jo Malone!