My Blog List

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Exploring the many uses of herbs

As someone whose potted herbs have until now come from a supermarket's limited stock, a visit to Manor Farm Herbs in Oxfordshire was a revelation. The nursery grows an amazing range of around 200 different varieties, some familiar, others that I’d never heard of, such as this white Lavender, Meeilo.
Their plant list includes herbs with culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses, and runs from Achillea Desert Eve Red to Wormwood prostrate. Among them are no fewer than 22 different Thymes, 8 different Houseleeks, and 19 varieties of Mint!
I came away with a basket full of plants, and buzzing with ideas of what to do with them. Jane, who runs the nursery, gave our group a very interesting talk, pointing out that many of the herbs are highly decorative with a wealth of colours and can live happily anywhere from a rockery to a herbaceous border or hanging basket. They're also useful to cover bare ground around the stems of perennials - for example, Jane suggested putting this Purple Sage below a rose bush.
For a splash of more intense colour, there's a striking Purple Basil, while a touch of pink or mauve could be added by the flowers of Heartsease or Chive or this Creeping Pink Thyme (below).
Yellows and oranges come from Golden Purslane, Pot Marigold, and Nasturtiums. For white accents there are Basil and Salad Rocket flowers as well as Nasturtium ‘Alaska’ leaves. Jane also recommended adding herb leaves and flowers to salads for extra aroma, flavour and texture. One tip was to finely chop a fresh herb and add to a French salad dressing mix, leaving it to marinate in a fridge for up to 24 hours before using.
A highlight of the visit was afternoon tea in the garden, surrounded by herb-packed borders. Not surprisingly, the home-baked cakes all featured herbs from the nursery and Manor Farm Herbs' detailed website has a wide range of recipes to encourage experimentation. Ideas include Lavender cookies, Rosemary and Orange drizzle cake, Sage bread, Beetroot and Apple soup and even a Cucumber and Lemon Variegated Thyme Martini. There's also a plant list for mail orders, growing ideas, and care instructions.
Manor Farm Herbs are at Fringford, Bicester, in North Oxfordshire. OX278DP

Saturday, 10 August 2019

What will we plant in our gardens in 2020?

Every summer, one of the country’s biggest suppliers of bedding plants, Ball Colegrave, opens its trial grounds at West Adderbury in Oxfordshire to horticultural specialists, retailers, landscapers and home gardeners. This year, more than 3,500 visitors came along to enjoy the amazing Summer Showcase displays, which included 200 new varieties and 700 experimental products. They were invited to vote for their favourites, and the results give a good indication as to what is likely to be popular in garden centres and nurseries across the country next year. So what received the most votes?
It was a petunia, but no ordinary one. This eyecatching Glacier Sky has large violet flowers speckled with a constellation of white stars edged with an ‘ice’ effect margin. Bred to achieve high weather resistance and with a strong branching habit, it would add that something special to baskets and containers.
The second overall favourite was a spectacular new lavender, Blue Spear, with tall spikes of an intense bluish-purple.  It does best in full sun, while being a magnet for pollinating insects, and is ideal for containers, garden beds and rock gardens.
Third place went to a lovely new ivy-leaf geranium, Marcarda® Pink with Purple Eye. It’s semi-trailing, but with a compact form ideal for containers, baskets and window boxes. Among the other new varieties that attracted many votes were Coleus Flame Thrower Salsa Roja, Osteospermum Compact FlowerPower Purple Sun, Heuchera Black Pearl, Petchoa Beautiful Caramel Yellow, and Lobelia Infinity Blue.

Outstanding among the many current varieties on display was Ball Colegrave's new downy mildew-resistant Busy Lizzie, Beacon Impatiens (above), which comes in a wide selection of colours. The flowers seem to be happy with whatever the summer weather can throw at them and were making wonderful displays, despite the blazing heat of the previous week.
I was also taken with the beautiful range of zinnias. This is a plant that’s fluctuated in popularity over the years – my grandmother loved them, but my mother wasn’t a fan.  Now new easy-care varieties like Zinnia Zesty (above) have been developed that will perform whatever the weather, ready to delight a new generation of gardeners.
The displays around the grounds (above) were amazing, full of ideas and inspiration.
The painter Monet would have loved the planting in and around the water feature, while two living walls, ablaze with colour, showed what could be achieved with the right framework.
And it wasn’t just the visitors who were enjoying the displays – they had attracted the attention of flocks of colourful butterflies  – including this Peacock on a Dianthus Dash Magician.
Ball Colegrave Ltd, Milton Rd, West Adderbury, Banbury, Oxon OX12 3EY

Thursday, 27 June 2019

An Open Gardens Day to Remember

Last weekend saw the Open Gardens Day for our NW2 London neighbourhood. Ten gardens opened to the public – all very different, but equally entrancing, and a tribute to their owners who nurture them with such care and attention. Twenty-five years ago, Chris and Miranda's garden (below) was a building site. It's now a Yellow Book garden, a lush oasis of green with island beds, fish pond and curved borders of perennials and flowering shrubs.
It was interesting to see the different approaches that gardeners have taken when developing their plots. John tends a 'rescue garden', (below) liberated from former freeholder neglect and the result of eight years' work on behalf of the new joint ownership. Whilst it's filled with trees and colourful plants such as clematis and roses,  there's been a concerted effort to attract birds, hence the numerous feeders (below). Among the many avian visitors are four different tits (blue, long-tailed, great and coal), goldcrests, robins, wrens, blackbirds, dunnocks, wood pigeons, greater spotted woodpeckers, and (seen once) a song thrush and a tawny owl.
Another garden that is very wildlife friendly has been created by Margaret and John. There are newts and frogs in their two small ponds and various small birds visit the feeders.
Over the years they have collected some interesting plants and shrubs, including variegated agave, aloe vera, chusam palm,  two sarawa pine grown from seeds, and this lovely feathery aruncus, sometimes known as Goat's Beard.
You enter Vanessa's garden through a trio of rose and clematis arches. The centrepiece is a Japanese koi pond, surrounded by seating. Courgettes and cucumbers are being trained to climb up a frame, and a clever collection of stacked containers, tucked behind a bench, provides a plentiful supply of herbs – an idea I took away to try myself.
Most of the houses in the area are quite substantial, and many are divided into flats. Kate's garden is shared, with a mature willow tree delineating the border between the two halves. As well as a decked area with pieces of art work and found objects, there are old-fashioned roses, a very old apple tree and lots of perennial plants, many artistically arranged in pots.
Jan's garden, which is also divided into two, features a walled water feature with native British pond plants and plenty of places to  sit and watch the wildlife.
Another garden that invites you to sit and relax is tended by Judy and Val. It's brimming with colourful pots, fruit trees, acers, ericaceous plants, shrubs and trees, all of which can be admired from the summer house or the two paved patios (below).
A more formal approach is evident in the tranquil space of  Bob's long back garden, which features mature acers, cypresses and clipped bay, yew and box. Caterpillar control was a hot topic for visitors, who were keen to learn how he was managing to keep his hedging so immaculate.
Rosy and David have a garden in two parts - the first area you see is a large patio with borders of mixed planting, overlooked by a Japanese-inspired pavilion that provides a covered eating area for parties. From here you look out on to the dramatic contrast of a bark-covered area of woodland which they call 'The London Secret Garden'.
As well as these lovely gardens, visitors also explored the Dell – a  magical garden hidden behind a row of residental houses. At this time of year it's awash with beautiful roses like these.
The event is always very much a community affair, with plenty of opportunities for catching up with neighbours and making new friends. Several hundred people stopped off for refreshments in the tea garden, and enjoyed the wide array of home-made cakes that were donated.
A treat for the more adventurous was a chance to ascend to the top of the tower of St Gabriel’s church for a birds-eye view of the gardens. Another major attraction was the plant stall, crammed with hundreds of plants grown for the occasion by neighbours. Brent's new deputy mayor, Lia Colacicco, was among the visitors.

The money raised through ticket and plant sales is going to local charities.The event is organised every two years by the garden club, part of the Mapesbury Residents’ Association, and around 80 people were involved in the planning and preparation. Grateful thanks to everyone for such a memorable afternoon.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Gardeners' World Live Show Garden Awards 2019

The deluges the country has seen in recent days did not deter the exhibitors at the BBC Gardeners’ World Live show in Birmingham. Clad in anoraks and wellies, they defied the elements to create a series of imaginative and colourful floral displays and gardens bound to inspire the green-fingered. Their rewards came at the NEC on Thursday night, with the announcement of the show garden awards. Platinum, the highest available, went to two designers: Alexandra Froggatt for her “Watchmakers Garden” (also named Best in Show, above) and Lucy Bravington, with Worcestershire-based landscapers DesignIt, for the “High Line Garden”. In her creation, Froggatt pays homage to the show’s host city, with the recreation of a garden typical of the back yard of a craftsman in the city’s historic Jewellery Quarter in the 19th c.
A lovely touch is the kitchen garden, crammed with heritage vegetables. It’s surrounded by cottage garden flowers, naturalistic grasses and rustic paths and fences.
Bravington’s Platinum design (above) was inspired by New York’s High Line – a beautiful garden on a bridge over a disused railway line. She’s mixed trees, perennials and ornamental grasses with industrial steel elements to create a sense of privacy. Gold awards went to Gadd Brothers in the APL Avenue for their “Getaway Garden” (designed for a young professional couple with a small linear garden), and Hana Leonard for “Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush” a garden with a circular theme that is sheltered by an airy tree.
Several of the gardens have an international flavour, among them “A Glimpse of South East Asia” by Timotay Landscapes (above). Filled with colourful tropical planting, it’s a fusion of ideas inspired by the natural landscapes of Indochina.  It features a shallow pebble pool which has beside it a large day bed and a hammock for chilling out (rather damp when I took this photo, but perfect for when the sun finally appears).
I loved the drama of the four horses charging out of the MS Society Revelation Garden, which won a silver merit, but if, in my dreams, I could chose a garden to take home, I’d go for another Gold show garden award winner, the John Lewis Home Solutions Garden created by Waitrose Partner Shaun Beale (below).
As well as mixing soft and sculptural planting, it has plenty of space for relaxing whatever the weather, with a garden office, water feature, and an eyecatching espaliered hedge for privacy.

BBC Gardeners’ World Live runs until Sunday, June 16 at the NEC, Birmingham.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Is this the future of food?

The most thought-provoking exhibition of 2019 may well be the V&A's FOOD: Bigger than the Plate. This examines the future of what we eat - and our planet - with a witty and sometimes provocative look at design, production and alternative sustenance. There's no preaching, just lots of ideas, and visitors can see several exhibits actually growing in the gallery space.
What can you do with used coffee grounds, other than throw them away? Well, GroCycle has created an Urban Mushroom Farm using coffee waste from the museum's Benugo cafe and turned them into compost in which edible Oyster mushrooms can grow (above). When these are harvested, they'll be returned to the cafe for use in selected dishes.
There are also some chilled display cabinets with cheeses created from microbes harvested from the bodies of celebrities. There was no mention of these going back to the cafe – and quite honestly, I wouldn’t rush to try a Comté cheese created with the help of samples from Heston Blumenthal’s nostrils and pubic hair – but maybe in the future, we’ll be grateful for such delicacies.
Local produce and initiatives that reconnect consumers and producers are hot topics at the moment. An east London community enterprise, Company Drinks, draws on the area's tradition of going hop picking to bring people from Barking and Dagenham together to pick and process ingredients for drinks. It was founded by Kathrin Bohm of Myvillages in 2014 and since then, more than 36,000 people have got involved. Some of their produce is available to sample. The cordial I tried was a refreshing infusion of kale, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, sugar and water, served in a paper cup.
The exhibtion has four sections: Compost, Farming, Trading and Eating. The final one looks at the role of the table, the challenges we face in feeding the world, and scientific projects, ingredients and recipes that push the boundaries of ingenuity in cooking. A pop-up food bar provided by the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy's LOCI Food Lab (above) makes tiny canapés to order once visitors choose three of their food priorities from a 15-strong list. My choice of a “delicious, affordable and protein-rich” canapé contained Essex chia seeds, British yellow peas and quinoa, mould microprotein and dried and powdered anchovy. The end result, below, certainly tickled the tastebuds.
The show’s co-curators, Catherine Flood and May Rosenthal Sloan, point out that food is one of the most powerful tools through which we shape the world we live in. They say that now is a crucial moment to ask not just what will we be eating tomorrow, but what kind of food future do we want? This exhibition is bursting with intriguing ideas and suggestions.
FOOD: Bigger than the Plate is at the V&A Museum in South Kensington until October 20, 2019. Tickets £17, concessions available.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Willow Wand Magic

From this...
to this...
in just 10 weeks. 
Who would have guessed a bundle of twisted twigs could turn so quickly into a living sculpture? I received the bare bundle back at the end of February, popped it in a pot, and gave it plenty of water. Within days, green shoots appeared which have now developed into a topiary crown. The next step is  to prune it into a ball, and it will be ready to take its place as a delightful garden feature. As per the instructions, I’ve kept the tie around the stems, but over the years, these should graft together to become one single willow trunk, while retaining the beautiful twisted decorative effect of the stem. Definitely some magic at work there.