My Blog List

Monday, 13 December 2010

Abundance at King Henry's Walk Garden

On Saturday members from some of the London-based Abundance fruit-picking groups gathered to share their experiences and explore ways of working together next year. They came from as far afield as Peckham, Belsize Park, Archway, Wimbledon, Kilburn, Chiswick, West Ealing and Mapesbury (Willesden Green). Some groups have been going for several years and have facebook pages, while others are very new and, in one case, just about to get started, so there was a lot to talk about.

The venue was King Henry's Walk Garden (left), a community garden in the Mildmay ward of Islington, opened in 2007. Created on a patch of derelict land, it's primarily a garden for people who don't have one of their own, with 76 organic growing plots and planters (below) for the use of local residents and communal garden areas for recreation. (It opens to the public at weekends.)

There's also an area of protected woodland (once the site of an old factory) and a resource building where activities such as our meeting are held. Despite the cold grey weather, the garden was an inspiration. Volunteers were carrying out regular maintenance, and it was heartening to see how many plants were sending up new shoots, despite the recent blanket of snow.
For more about the project see

Sunday, 31 October 2010

What would YOU do with an old shirt???

I've just been round to see a neighbour who's had a busy weekend turning apples and pears into jars of golden preserves. She was adding the finishing touch - pretty green covers tied with pink ribbon. And where did they come from? Not a shop, but cut from one of her husband's worn-out shirts. And when there are no jars to be decorated, she recycles what were his favourites into handkerchiefs, so he never really has to part with them.
These three jars were in exchange for some pears pickled according to a River Cottage recipe (not sure yet how they've turned out, as they need time to mature). While the contents will soon be gone, the covers may well grace another batch of jams and chutneys next year.
And a footnote to our 2010 Mapesbury fruit-picking project - we've reached a grand total of 725.8 kg apples, pears, plums, grapes, elderberries and medlars - all produce which would otherwise have gone to waste.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Leaf-peeping in Gloucestershire

Autumn is the season when the Westonbirt National Arboretum really comes into its own. This week Japanese maples were at their fiery best, glowing in the afternoon sun. A real treat for 'leaf-peepers', and for all the youngsters enjoying their half-term break.

BBC2 Gardeners' World may have been there on the same day. I spotted a fixed camera in a maple glade, and on Friday's programme, there was Carol Klein explaining how the leaves get their colour. Apparently the reds and golds are there all the time, but overlaid by the green, which disappears in autumn.
The programme is on BBC iplayer at
Westonbirt is open all year round, 9am to dusk.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

New beginnings...

I woke up this morning to a lawn sparkling with the first frost of the season, and the remaining annuals flopping over. Time to start planning for next year.

Inspiration will no doubt come from the Garden Party to Make a Difference held at Prince Charles' London home, Lancaster House, last month. Along one wall, a Future Cities Garden designed by Tom Petherick, Adam Hunt and Lulu Urquhart was packed with ideas for vertical gardening in a restricted space. This old propped-up door had become a cascade of lettuces.
A peek behind revealed holes drilled to hold large yoghurt pots which each held a single plant.
There were rows of shiny red peppers in an upright frame, autumn raspberries growing beneath a standard apple tree, and containers ranging from an old dustbin to large olive oil tins and even a kitchensink. Tom Petherick says the 'stacking' system stems from the homestead gardens found all over Asia.All the plants grown in this way have a use - whether for food, fuel, fodder or shade -  and  thrive in proximity to one another.
By now the royal facade has probably reverted to its more formal appearance, but for the two weeks of the garden party, it intrigued and fascinated visitors. I predict an outbreak of lettuce 'walls' next summer.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Speedy peeling..

In NW London we're up to our elbows in seasonal fruit - Mapesbury community fruit harvesters have so far picked more than 620 kg that would otherwise have gone to waste, with a similar amount gathered by our sister group in NW6. The best is going to good causes but we're also experimenting with chutney and pickling recipes for next year's local Open Gardens Day. So I was truly thankful to find this new peeler designed by twin brothers Richard and Antony Joseph for their kitchenware company, Joseph Joseph. The curved blade (seen here with some of our windfalls) means it gets round the apple so much faster. Such a simple idea - why didn't someone think of it before???

Friday, 17 September 2010

Autumn Glory

Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire are proof that even when nature is starting to shut up shop for the year, you can still have a spectacular display.

Yesterday, as the sun came out, the famous herbaceous border had people literally stopping in their tracks as they rounded the corner and saw it for the first time. Most of the plants are the sort you can come across in any suburban garden, but the planting - against the mellow bricks of the old kitchen garden wall - shows them to perfection. Michaelmas daisies, goldenrod, helenium and sedums are replacing the delphinium, achillea, verbascum and phlox and are set to bloom until the first frosts.

The Formal Garden is also ablaze with colour, much of it from an intricate knot garden with swirls of different medicinal herbs, which lies immediately behind the 'Lamp of Wisdom' statue.

Behind the sunlit patch of this corner near Seb's Garden, a path leads down to the River Thame. The swathe of island beds have been planted so they can be enjoyed from any angle.
Waterperry began life as a School of Horticulture for Ladies early in the 1930s. After this closed in 1972, the grounds were extensively developed and now cover 8 acres. Herbaceous nursery stock beds (such as those above) provide a living catalogue of plants. The teaching tradition also continues. On the current agenda are three Grow It Yourself workshops:
24th November 2010 - Hardwood cuttings, root cuttings, herbaceous plant division
16th March 2011 - Growing plants from seed
15th June 2011 - Softwood and semi-ripe cuttings

Another Waterperry Gardens must-see is the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, right next to the old manor house. It has an unusual wooden tower, the original Saxon chancel arch, some beautiful 15th century brasses and stained glass dating back to 1220.
Waterperry Gardens are open every day and are near Wheatley in Oxfordshire. OX33 1JZ . Regular events include an Apple weekend (Oct 8, 9 and 10) and a Great Pumpkin Hunt (Oct 23).
ph 01844 339254

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Ready for action!!

Here are some of the Mapesbury fruit harvesters, about to tackle two huge apple trees in a garden in London, NW2. By the end of the morning we'd picked 150 kg of cooking apples which might otherwise have gone to waste. Instead, they've been taken to a homeless charity, and some are being made into apple pies to raise money for the Pakistan flood appeal.
Our running total for this picking season is now 458 kg - and we've only been going a few weeks! Many thanks to all involved, and to the garden owners who are so generously letting us in to pick.


Thursday, 9 September 2010

A most unusual royal garden party...

Gigantic sheep climbing a ladder to insulate a loft, a string of washing flapping in the breeze, reusable shopping bags being made from old royal curtains......
Not what you'd expect at a garden party.
But the Garden Party to Make a Difference, in the adjoining gardens of Clarence House, Lancaster House and Marlborough House, in central London is the brainchild of Prince Charles, and aims to show how just a few small steps can help build a sustainable future. So it's out with the champagne glasses and in with resuseable waterbottles for guests as they explore more than 100 displays on everything from building green homes to saving electricity and growing your own veg.
I went down for the morning, but ended up spending most of the day there.
I loved this Ark art installation (above), where children from 10 Oxfordshire primary schools show what they'd take if they were to sail away to a low-carbon future. Garden Organic was giving away seedlings of rocket and chard to encourage visitors to grow something edible, and the RSPB demonstrated how to build a nest box from recycled materials.
There are serious messages too. The washing-line of t-shirts (opposite a thatched summerhouse built for Queen Mary) seeks to persuade people to dry their clothes naturally - using a tumble dryer every two days could cost over £100 a year. And another sign reads: "Be thrifty with your food" - 8.3 million tonnes of food is thrown away by UK households every year, costing the average family £680.

I was tempted by almost everything on sale in the Farmers' Market, and admired the line-up of electric eco-cars. It was also a real thrill to be able to see first-hand what Prince Charles has achieved in the grounds of Clarence House since he moved in after the Queen Mother's death in 2002. (More to come on the blog about this and the recycling of his curtains.)

The festival is part of the Prince's Start initiative, which has seen him touring the country in the royal train (which runs on bio-fuel) looking at projects that help the environment and discussing with business leaders how companies can source goods ethically and recycle more.

Entrance to the Garden Party to Make a Difference is on the corner of Green Park and the Mall and is open from 10 am - 6pm until Sept 19. Tickets cost £15 for adults.
More details:

Monday, 23 August 2010

Harvest time

Do you have a tree laden with fruit you can't reach or a lawn covered with windfalls you don't want?
It's a common problem in suburban gardens. But rather than see food go to waste, community fruit harvesting schemes are springing up around the country. It's all done on a very local level, usually through word of mouth or local residents' associations, with tree owners contacting the picking teams once their fruit is ready. The produce is shared between local charities, tree owners and volunteers. Our area in NW London has two schemes going. Last weekend Mapesbury Fruit Harvesters (pictured) tackled a huge old apple tree and ended up with 67.5 kg of Beauty of Bath (mostly given to a local charity for the homeless) plus a few windfall Bramleys. Later this week we'll be picking plums. A plus for tree owners is that a few of us went on a pruning course earlier in the year, and can now bring light and shape into some of the trees which have become too overgrown to produce well.

The umbrella name for the initiative is Abundance - it recently won an Observer ethical living award. Local groups are flourishing in parts of Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and Sheffield as well as London, and it's hoped many more will spring up.

Last autumn the BBC website ran a feature on Abundance:
For more information try the following links:
or for the Mapesbury area, email

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Sissinghurst splendour

A visit to Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent a few days ago provided plenty of inspiration - and some interesting plants from the shop there. The famous White Garden, developed by Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson around the surviving parts of an Elizabethan mansion was looking spectacular, even though some of the roses had finished blooming. The National Trust, which owns the property, has just opened the Priest's House (left) as a 6-bed holiday cottage. Windows look out onto the White Garden, and guests can wander through the gardens in the evening, when other visitors have left.

But what really caught my eye were the hazel hoops set into the ground around some of the rose bushes. What were they for? Alexis Datta, Sissinghurst's Head Gardener, was on hand to explain - apparently bending the stems down over the hoops puts pressure on the plants and makes them produce more flowers. It also provides different heights and shapes in the rose garden.

Sissinghurst Castle is off the A262 in Kent, near the village of Cranbrook. Postcode is TN17 2AB.
National Trust holiday lets:
(All profits from lettings go towards funding the Trust's conservation work.)

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Bloomsbury's Exotic Blooms

For a glimpse of South Africa, head to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, where Kew has created a colourful front garden with plants from the Cape region. They range from these agapanthus, with their lilac-coloured pollen, to the Quiver tree, so called because the San people have traditionally used its branches to create quivers for their arrows. According to the explanatory boards dotted among the greenery, South Africa has 22,000 different plant species - two-thirds found nowhere else on earth.

Surprisingly, these are not Wild West cactus, but euphorbias. The San mixed their milky sap with extract from the Diamphidia beetle to poison their arrow tips. But if correctly applied, the sap can be used medicinally, and was a traditional treatment for cancer.

The garden will remain until October 10, and visits are free of charge.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Lambeth treasure

Finally made it to the Treasures of Lambeth Palace Library exhibition - just in time, as it closes on July 23. Among the fascinating material there: the 12c Lambeth Bible (left), Richard III's Book of Hours, which he left in his tent when he went out to fight and die at the Battle of Bosworth; a letter from Elizabeth I with a post-script about her recovery from smallpox; a copy of the warrant, with Elizabeth's signature, for Mary Queen of Scots' execution; and physicians' daily reports on the mental health of George III.

But before you go into the Great Hall, stop and admire the enormous sprawling white fig tree by the entrance. It was originally planted in 1555 by Cardinal Pole. Lambeth Palace garden - one of the oldest and largest private gardens in London - is open only rarely. But visitors to the exhibition do get a bonus - a discount for the Museum of Garden History at St Mary's Church next door.

Lambeth Palace Library, Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7JU

Monday, 5 July 2010

Time for a change

Inspired by all the lovely plants at Cottesbrooke Hall, I've been creating a new flower bed at the end of our garden in front of a row of camellias and rhododendrons. These look spectacular in spring, but by June the area is crying out for more colour.

The solution? Lay a path of old bricks immediately in front of them, where dense shade meant nothing grew, then dig a new bed.

There's a colour scheme of sorts, moving from pinks, mauves and purples on the left, through to reds, then yellows and whites. It's a real mixture of plants, many of which were donated by friends or grown to raise money for charity by the convenor of our local garden club, Margaret. A fatsia japonica has pride of place in the centre (thanks for this, Heidi), while a dogwood (from Elizabeth) should provide an elegant contrast to a small hydrangea rescued from an overcrowded bed nearby. There's also a ceanothus which had become rootbound in a neighbour's balcony pot. In between are lupins, acanthus spinosus (Bear's breeches), erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', salvia, achillea, phlox, campanula, scabiosa and a tradescantia, 'Sweet Kate', which had not been doing well against an east-facing fence. I've surrounded the bed with canes and criss-crossed it with black cotton, in a bid to keep out the foxes, and now am waiting to see what will survive. There are plenty of gaps to be filled, but for these I'll try my hand at propagation, using advice from Carol Klein's brilliant new book, "Grow Your Own Garden" (BBC Books). She makes it look so easy!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Fun of the Fair

A great day out at Cottesbrooke Plant Finders Fair, in the award-winning grounds of Cottesbrooke Hall, just north of Northampton. Specialist nurseries from as far afield as Bristol are there all weekend with a wide variety of plants - many of them unusual and eyecatching - so there's lots to tempt you. My only gripe was the queues. The caterers seemed unprepared for the demand for drinks, and a limited number of ticket-sellers at the gates meant a long tailback of cars waiting to get into the grounds. We ground to a halt about two and a half miles from Cottesbrooke, and spent the next half-hour inching our way forward. Let's hope that the situation improves for visitors during the next two days.
Cottesbrooke Plant Finders Fair, Cottesbrooke Hall, Northampton, NN6 8PF
Open 10am - 5.30 pm each day. Admission £7.50

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Emerald interlude

The rhododendrons now brightening up borders everywhere remind me of a magical visit to Ireland last July. After landing at Dublin, we'd headed south to Co Wicklow for lunch at Avoca Handweavers in Kilmacanogue. I knew their gardens would be spectacular - they were once attached to the house of the Jameson's Whiskey family - but was bowled over by the glorious colours on these bushes right outside the Avoca restaurant entrance. The setting is a real plus for visitors who go there for the award-winning food and the Irish knitwear, cookbooks and gifts on sale. There's also a garden centre with a wide range of speciality plants - I left wishing I lived locally and could stock up on a regular basis.

Co Wicklow is known as the Garden of Ireland - and with good reason. Not far from Avoca, in the Wicklow Mountains National Park, is the hauntingly beautiful Glendalough, a monastic settlement founded in the 6th c by St Kevin on a site between two lakes. Walking trails take you past Celtic cross gravestones and the ruins of ancient grey stone buildings. The 30 metre high Round Tower (pictured) still dominates the site, while a well thought out heritage centre gives a insight into the area's history.

The next day we found more echoes of Ireland's past at the World Heritage Site of Newgrange, a Stone Age passage tomb in Co. Meath (above). Some 3,200 years ago, its builders had the skills and knowledge to exactly align the passage so, at the winter solstice, the sun shines directly into the central burial chamber. You can enter only with a guide, who, for a brief moment, will extinguish all lights apart from the one which mimics the sun's rays shining through a portal. It's a profoundly moving experience.
There are more passage graves (one reputed to be around 5000 years old) in the grounds of Loughcrew House, also in Meath, but what really caught my eye there were the beautiful gardens with their unusual sculptures (above). There are six acres to stroll around, laid out by past generations of the Naper family, who've lived there since 1665. In 1997 Emily Naper began the major task of their restoration.
She's created new borders (this one backs on to an old wall), terraces and woodland walks, and has turned the grounds into a venue for weddings - in the romantic ruined church of St Oliver Plunkett - summer concerts, opera, and festivals.

All these beautiful sites are just an hour or so's drive from Dublin - but a world away from that city's buzz and bustle. Just remember to keep an umbrella handy for the showers that make Ireland the Emerald Isle.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Where have all my flowers gone?

I was hoping for a display of tulips like this....

Instead, all I've got is this - five weeks after planting 30 bulbs chosen from the displays at Amsterdam's flower market, just one lonely shoot of a Triumph White has emerged.

When I bought them, I knew it was late in the season, but was told the bulbs had been chilled to hold back flowering, and would bloom six weeks after planting.

I should have known better.

So, unless a miracle happens, I will have to cross my fingers, wait for next spring, and hope that in the meantime the squirrels don't acquire a taste for Dutch delicacies.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Perfect broccoli....

I’ve been inspired by cookery writer and presenter Sophie Grigson to buy some broccoli seeds, in the hope of a bumper crop to experiment with. When I met her at a lunch the other week, we were talking about the importance of fresh food, simply cooked, and she shared her favourite broccoli recipe - a hit with her teenage children. (She says she originally got it from fellow chef Heston Blumenthal.)

It goes something like this:
Wash the broccoli, separate the head into small pieces and thinly slice the stems. Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, put the broccoli in and cover with a lid. Cook for 2 minutes, shaking occasionally, remove the lid and season with salt and pepper, add a lump of butter, shake it again, then cook, covered, for another two minutes. Test to see if it’s tender enough, and if not, cook for another minute or so. Don’t worry if it’s brown in places – it all adds to the flavour and texture.

Sophie has recently been exploring the varied cuisines of the Far East - see the results of this in her new TV series, Sophie Grigson in the Orient, on the Travel Channel at 9pm from Tuesday, May 18.

Here's Sophie with Hong Kong chef Sam Ip.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Elephants on Parade

Venture into central London over the next few weeks and you may find yourself face to face with a brightly-painted baby elephant. More than 250 lifesized models have been installed throughout town as part of the Elephant Parade, which aims to highlight the plight of Asian Elephants. Each is decorated by an artist or fashion designer, including Lulu Guinness (seen here with her creation), Tommy Hilfiger, Matthew Williamson, Diane von Furstenberg, John Rocha and Jack Vettriano. One herd is in Trafalgar Square, others can be found in Notting Hill, the South Bank, Greenwich Market, around St Paul's, and in other tourist hot-spots.

Come July, the models will be auctioned off to raise money for the conservation of flesh-and-blood Asian elephants. Over the past 100 years, their population has shrunk by 90%, and if nothing is done to preserve their habitat, in 30 years they could vanish altogether.

Artist Benjamin Shine has transformed his elephant into a taxi, powered by a solar cell so that a sign lights up at night and its eyes turn into headlamps. It’s by the Royal Exchange.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Tulip fever

Back from a very short visit to Amsterdam to see the tulips. When I went a few years ago, they were late because of a long winter - this time there was colour everywhere. Some 12,000 bulbs have been planted around the canal ring and in private gardens, which were open for the last weekend in April. These blooms were in the Begijnhof, a cluster of buildings around a 14th century courtyard, which once provided homes for women who belonged to a lay Catholic sisterhood.
To the west of Amsterdam are the bulbfields, a glorious patchwork of colour, with daffodils, hyacinths and tulips of every variety imaginable.

The big attraction there is Keukenhof, where, for eight weeks every spring, landscaped gardens are ablaze with huge drifts of colour. Some 800,000 visitors flock to see the 4.5 million bulbs, all planted by hand.
Tulipmania began back in the 17th century, when Dutch traders brought tulips back to Amsterdam from Turkey. They became a luxury item, with unusual bulbs selling for up to 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. When prices fell, some investors were reportedly ruined.
Today, there are more than 100 varieties, which come in colours and shapes that the early collectors would envy, such as Sorbet (left) and Greenstar (below)

The displays provide plenty of inspiration. Here the intense blue of Muscari Armeniacum is a perfect foil for the white of the Calgary tulip.

New at Keukenhof is a walled garden which gives the historic background to the tulip and other bulbs in the Netherlands.
Here, the Knot Garden recreates a style popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Keukenhof is open daily until May 16. Tour companies run full and half-day tours, or take a train from Amsterdam to Schiphol airport, and then a bus for Lisse.
And if you can't get there in time for the tulips, consider a visit during the Open Garden Days, (Friday 18 - Sunday 20 June) when some 25 - 30 private gardens hidden along the canals open to the public.