Behind every great garden..

... is a great gardener.

If you are interested in Historic Garden Conservation, Chiswick House is a good place to see what can be done.  A huge injection of Heritage Lottery funding, plus donations from big business and generous individuals have enabled a thorough and careful restoration of this most important of London gardens. Designed originally by Lord Burlington and William Kent in 1729 - he who 'Leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden' - the garden has several layers of design contributed by the generations of owners, until it became a private mental asylum in the Victorian era and thence a public park. 

By the turn of this century it was woefully neglected, and whilst the house was under English Heritage the garden was maintained by the cash strapped local authority.  An ill advised restoration project in the 1970's had filled the main lawn with trees, graffiti covered the entrance walls, dogs fouled the grounds and mattresses lurked under the brambles in the undergrowth. 

The grounds have been transformed by the injection of money, the paths are resurfaced, the follies are gleaming and the exedra now has statues with heads above the hedge as they should be, rather than hidden in the hedge as they were. 

An iconic cafe and toddlers' playground brings a twentieth century layer and the garden now welcomes thirty thousand people a year, but what really makes the garden special is the people.

One cannot help immediately liking the quietly spoken Head Gardener Fiona Crumley. Former Head Gardener at Chelsea Physic garden she was enjoying  being at home organising funding for young gardeners to get started on their careers (see The Merlin Trust) when her arm was twisted to take on Chiswick. Despite early scepticism she soon won the hearts of the Chiswick House Friends group, a very influential and well organised set of local people who came together to protect their park at its lowest point, and were understandably at first unsure about plans to remove hundreds of trees from the gardens, until Fiona's good communication explained the historic reasons and replacements planned. 

Fiona maintains the garden with two - yes two - grounds contractors, but they are supplemented with 25 volunteers in the main garden, and 25 volunteers in the kitchen gardens. 

Goosefoot Volunteers

The huge amount of good will and time that has been invested by local people has turned the kitchen garden into a community project, where local school children come to pick and picnic on the fresh produce - tasting their first lettuce in several cases. The gardens are tended by a cheerful group of mostly retired barristers, journalists and other professionals with occasional younger work experience gardeners. They called themselves the Goosefoot Volunteers after the famous patte d'oie layout of the main avenues:

The Greenwich BA Garden Design students who came with me last week were impressed by the restoration and particularly interested in the current exhibition of Rysbrack paintings which show the garden in its original splendour. But what really bowled us all away was the volunteers, and none more so than our Continental European students.  A very well educated mature student looked on in disbelief as Fiona spoke of being able to double the volunteers next year; until eventually he raised a question: 'Excuse me... these volunteers, how does it work - is it that they makes for free?' 'Oh yes' said Fiona, 'they all 'makes for free'.'

Wild Windy and Wet with a dash of Wisdom

Most of my friends think we are barking mad - and I'm not sure about the less friendly, but it is true that  camping in the almost guaranteed rain of our West Country is not everyone's idea of a perfect holiday. However that is precisely what my husband and children like to do best, so I follow along each year, getting slightly better at making pancakes in the rain, and charting the location of every local swimming pool with military precision to allow a seemingly opportunistic visit to the shower to tie into each day's outing.

The base for our wild and windy wet week is always my husband's uncle's farm in Devon, at the end of a creek which leads to the sea.  On a really wet year when the sea came up to meet our tents, and I worried about my double mattress being washed away (a girl needs one luxury..) my husband was over joyed, as he was able to canoe the whole way down to the sea with my son, as he had every year as a boy.

My husband's uncle is an extraordinary man, and I would like to tell you about him.

He grew up in Trinidad, the son of a wealthy sugar grower, and came back to farm on Church Commission land in Devon as a young adult.  The Church said a  farmer needs a woman, so my mother-in-law moved in as temporary land girl until a lovely wife was found.

With a non stop enquiring mind John tried all the best methods of farming, which in the fifties and sixties meant all the best chemicals. Gradually he became disenchanted with the divorce between land and husbandry, and began to look into an unusual practice then, called Organic Farming.  He started with pigs and a dairy herd.  He has left a legacy to his children of one of the best known organic farms in the UK. Riverford Farm now has country wide franchises that send organic boxes (run by son Guy) that include vegetables, milk (run by son Oliver) and meat (cue son Ben) to doorsteps all over England. Marketing is by daughter Rachel and young stock are brought up by daughter Louise.

Riverford, organic vegetables, vegbox home delivery

Time to retire you may think, but John is determined to make this planet a better place, and to that end is experimenting with several types of renewable energy. He has a wind turbine in his orchard, a water wheel in the stream and last year was experimenting with a rather dodgy looking methane gas collecting pit - I had visions of us all going out with a bang in the night.. This year he has invested in a huge swathe of solar panels on his barn roof, and had been experimenting with rendering cattle bones in vats to see how much energy could be produced - this on behalf of some university or other. I was just quite glad he'd finished boiling bones by the time we arrived. He aims to live a carbon neutral life, and survives on a tiny amount of electricity and fuel year. The only time I have seen this kind and smiling man annoyed was a few years ago when one of my children went to the loo in the night, and left the light on..

At 80+ he runs a local organic vegetable gardening cooperative around these polytunnels, with a fabulous crop of veg, all lovingly tended under their half-plastic-bottle cloches and tied up with carefully reclaimed string.

The children were intrigued to hear that this year we were sharing our orchard with a couple of 'Woofers'.
But no cuddly dogs in sight - John had installed a caravan in order to host two intrepid part time workers participating in World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farms, working and learning their way around the UK as they look for a smallholding of their own.


As we left John was preparing to harvest his apples.  He was collecting hundreds of recycled bottles to wash and fill with home made apple juice to be made during a bring-your-own apple pressing day he runs locally.  All proceeds go to Oxfam. Which as you may tell from the top photo John also supports by buying his clothes.

I think he deserves a knighthood - but it's my guess that Buckingham Palace would be too far in fuel for the carbon footprint to allow.

Baked Washed & Blown Dry? Come for a walk

We've been baked, jet washed and blown dry in the last few weeks, and the strong winds are still reminding us of staking 'Could-Do-Better's, like this Inula magnifica who looks a little worse for wear in his drunken sea of long grass.

But apart from a bit of tidying up after the storms, the garden is in holiday mood. The season extenders grown from seed have been planted and the weeds are slowing down. The grass has paused in the heat and a sea of clover has taken its place, alive with happy noisy bees, so there's time to walk the dogs..

One of the best things about walking, is the feeling of familiarity as you pass the same spots through the seasons.  We don't own the land through title deeds, but we all belong to the land, and in a spiritual way it belongs to us.

Tramping my daily beat with my spaniels circling my heels, I get terribly excited as the first buds on the trees herald the beginning of the end of winter. With the birth of the first lambs I feel triumphant and the arrival of the wild orchids along the side of the road makes me feel protective and then positively subversive as I dream of lying down in the path of the inevitable Council mowing machines.

As I walk I feel grounded and gradually peaceful. Nature is taking its course and all is in its place in this little corner of England's Green and Pleasant land. England seems through my lifetime to have been forever going to war, but it has always been at one remove, in a distant place and often for someone else's quarrels, so despite the news and the brave friends who return, we can be thankful that for many years war has not been to us.

Strange to think then that my favourite fields were once the spring board for D-Day. That the fields of sheep and crops were runways and Nissan huts, and that fierce dog fights took place over my house each day.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and to commemorate the brave American and Canadian airmen of the Ninth US Air Force and the 2nd Tactical Airforce, our local farmer Roger Munn has allowed a monument to be put up on his land in their memory.

I am very grateful to them for my peaceful walks.

These days the fields are the springboard for dozens of sky larks, jet propelled vertically into the sky as we pass, whilst on the way home the human fly past is almost silent:-

But the dogs have been busy collecting new weed seeds for the garden, so I won't be idle for long..

My thanks to Anni, who lives on the other side of the airfield and who gave me the black and white photos - here she is waving from her top right window:-

Fish in a Dish (washer), Garden Party Sunday

This time last year I had just about forgiven my husband for landing me in it - barely a week after a public exhibition for which I'd been working all hours, he had volunteered our garden to be open for a charity lunch party.  He had charitably told me at the time that I mustn't fuss, or to do any extra work for the opening, but any gardener reading this will know that having your garden open to the smallest of Groups is the horticultural equivalent of a critical inspection of your knicker drawer.  We did of course survive the opening and the guests were kind, and I was almost grateful for the injection of fear and adrenalin that had me up at Sparrow's, replanting entire beds that did not quite pass muster in the design department.

What bliss then this year, what relief and joy to be a mere guest, to waltz off without a care or responsibility to someone else's garden party for the same charity luncheon. Of course that would not be quite fair or friendly, so when he asked me to do some salad I was chuffed to have a home for my extra lettuces and all those pretty violas and marigolds.  When he asked me to help cook one of the dishes I was domestically docile.. when he appeared with the biggest salmon I have ever seen, and asked me to cook it to perfection for thirty people,  I was domestically daunted.

Step in my lovely planting assistant of previous posts, who told me that she always cooks big salmons in the dishwasher.  She wasn't joking and google showed me that Alaskan fisher/skaters and English fish-cooking gardeners have a common love of multi-tasking.  I didn't go as far as they suggested, and put a load of dirty dishes in at the same time whilst I  disappeared off for a skate (weed), but I did wrap the salmon in foil, duly herbed and buttered, and a hot wash later we were barely 5 minutes late for lunch, salmon perfectly cooked.

The garden was a real treat.  It is the private project of a clever fellow, born in America but here for years, he apparently retired early to do things that he loves.  The garden shows that love, with clever use of colour and bold planting that sets off the Elizabethan walls and enhances the original layout of this beautiful manor house.  

Dressed To Kill

Secateurs, wire-cutters, dust sheet, dirty clothes, trowel and spade  - not quite the usual accessories in an evening bag for an soiree at the opera.  As I got out of the London taxi at the gates of Holland Park the driver couldn't resist eyeing the handle of my spade sticking out of the bag:  'Going to bury a body are we love?'

Yesterday's client was a site more associated with models than mud, where cuttings mean fabric samples and shoots involve cameras and elegant girls. For my favourite planting assistant the most pressing question for the day was not just what to take, but 'what to wear'?

The space was tight, a fourth floor courtyard on Bond Street, surrounded on all sides by the floor to ceiling glass of directors' offices - having a meeting going on four feet away from us in the afternoon felt like gardening on stage.  I'm not sure it's going to make it as a spectator sport, but my lovely assistant does raise the tone when it comes to builder's derriere.

It's a small plot so everyone gets involved in the final detail - from moving planters to shovelling soil and washing pebbles. There is a Japanese theme to this garden with its reflection pool, bonsai Ilex crenata and shoji screen. I wanted to introduce a place of calm and stillness into the whirling world of high class women's wear - the evergreen plants, forms and layout were chosen to represent continuity and communication, for this is business that has survived and thrived as a family firm through turbulent times.

The final build goes well thanks to Chris and his tireless team who have been on site over the past few weeks.  After a long day only the lighting remains to be checked, but it won't be dark until ten and my other life calls. There's no time to go back to Kent to change, so I duck into the sumptuous powder room in my muddy smock, and duck out a few seconds later as corporate wife.

The opera was fabulous, the evening as sultry as the girls outside the cigarette factory. Carmen bewitched us all, but in the final scene the taxi driver was right, and there was murder in Holland Park.

(Thanks to Chris for his camera-phone photos)

What nonsense it is to shave it as often as foolish men shave their faces!

These wise words of William Robinson refer of course to the newly fashionable process of mowing the lawn - newly fashionable in the Victorian era since Mr Budding's lawn mower was invented in the 1820's.  These days face-shaving is in fashion in my part of England, but we are reverting happily to the idea of leaving areas of lawn unmown to welcome in the deliciously diverse wildflowers of the past. In fact William Robinson is back in vogue like formica kitchens and miniskirts. I have the 1977 version of the Wild Garden, with forward by the now venerable Robin Lane Fox.  In 1977 as now, the 'times were in favour' of cutting down on labour costs. It may be no coincidence with the world recession that there is a new edition of Robinson's book coming out in August - this time with photographs as well as the fabulous original woodcuts.

With 95% of England's meadow pasture gone under the plough and then 'improved' through fertilisation and pesticides we are very lucky in Kent to have Marden Meadow to remind us how it should be done. Owned and managed by the Kent Wildlife trust the three fields of just under 6 acres are easy to drive by, if you miss the discreet butterfly sign by the side of the lane.  

Once inside the meadow is a riot of green-winged orchids and meadow buttercup in late May, with thousands of the less showy adder's tongue for the eagle-eyed.  These will be followed by pepper saxifrage, dyer’s greenweed and yellow rattle as well as daisies, vetches, and wild grasses. The furthest and original field also has a rare wild service tree, and two ponds. The other two fields were bought in 1999 and are being recolonised gradually. The process is simple, following the ancient hay making patterns, with the hay being cut in late summer, left to stand (dropping its seed) and then removed (talking with it the nutrients not needed). Grazing would have followed in the past, treading in the seed and close cropping the grass to allow the flowers to compete.

William Robinson was also agin the Victorian practice of 'bedding out' of tender plants and in favour of 'placing plants of other countries, as hardy as our hardiest wild flowers, in places where they will flourish without further care or cost. ' Robinson was a great friend of Daisy Lloyd, creator of Great Dixter who followed his methods by mixing native and new, and whose son Christopher continued to make Dixter the Mecca of this methodology today. 

Not that Dixter advocates the 'low maintenance' approach, which Christopher Lloyd abhorred, calling it 'low braintenance', but the mixing of native and exotic is nowhere better demonstrated than the old rose garden, where Banana jostles with Rose and Clematis climbs Amicia.

As well as turning the rose garden into a tropical extravaganza Christopher Lloyd let the Topiary lawns grow up, and his head gardener Fergus Garrett is one of the great advocates and gurus of the Wildflower lawn today. At the recent Friends day he explained the the process they use, and showed us the newly re-annexed fields which are being returned to meadow with the help of willingly greedy sheep.

Each area of meadow in the garden has a slightly different flower population, depending on localised conditions. Daisy and Christopher Lloyd famously gathered their orchids from the local countryside - illegal today but perhaps an act of mercy before the sprays of the 1970's got to them.  It goes without saying that together with the native orchids and all-important yellow-rattle, you will find intermingled the North American native Camassia and eastern exotic Gladiolus byzantinus, both as happy in Kent as Dixter's Byzantine Head Gardener and its many American friends.

Uplifting mornings

One gets up earlier and earlier as the days get longer and planting time shorter - so much to do and so much to miss if you snooze!

This is my favourite early morning view, from my bedroom window - and every morning recently I have heard ringing in my ears these beautiful lines from the famous poem:

When you awaken in the morning hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight....