Sunday, 30 August 2009

Breaking Rules for Artistic, Crafty Beans....

I have made it a rule of my blog only to use my own photographs. However, I have recently been sent these three photographs of the most extraordinary craft work - and rules are there to be broken! They were posted to me by an elderly aunt, who I know would not have been able to take the photos and with no details of who did. So, anonymous person, thank you and I hope you don't mind me sharing them with the rest of the world: they are too good to hide away! And if you do read this, do let me know who you are so that you can receive full credit.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of NAFAS, the National Flower Arrangement Societies, this banner - which is 4ft x 2ft - was created by (I think I have this bit right) a friend of my aunts. It took her over three months and the finished work was hung in Westminster Abbey (London) along with twenty-one others.
In recognition of the work of BBOWT, the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trusts, the banner shows the reintroduced Red Kite at the top. Also included are many of the three counties famous buildings - Windsor Castle, Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre, river bridges - and other symbols.
Created from individual grains of rice, seeds, dried leaves and other plant material, the future of this banner is uncertain. It will be sad if it disappears from view and I, for one, have no idea where it is now. I shall have to write to Aunt for an update....

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Saturday, 29 August 2009

I Know a Bank Where The Wild Thyme Grows.....

Was William Shakespeare sitting in our secret valley when he wrote these words? I doubt it, although we are less than 30 miles from his birthplace at Stradford-upon-Avon. But on the slopes above our little winding river (it's the photo of the title header) the thyme flowers year after year.
Wild flower meadows are quite easy to create whether on the big scale or in the garden. Of course, the species rich meadows of the Chilterns and Cotswolds have evolved over centuries and have a wealth of insect and plant life to show for it. In the garden you just have to be a little more realistic and be grateful for every bug and butterfly that comes along and colonises it. Hopefully wild orchids, like the Pyramidal orchids below, will arrive too.
The golden rule of all meadows is to reduce fertility. As soon as fertility rises, usually through feeding, the grass sward thickens and out competes the flowers. The photo below is of 'our' bank and shows, as a golden haze, the unimproved grassland - thin, tall and sparse and too steep for the tractors to get onto and spray. The brighter green grass above and below is where the tractors can reach, the grass has been fed and, consequently, there are few wild flowers.

Late summer wild flower meadows require a different maintenance regime to those which have an abundance of spring flowers and, as it is that time of year, I shall concentrate on the former. Now is the time to cut the 'hay' whether on the bigger scale such as in this orchard or, by hand, in the garden. It is important to get the timing right - you need to leave it late enough for the seeds to fall from their heads to increase more. Leave it too late and bad weather knocks the grass and plants flat to the ground when it becomes a devil of a job to cut. The difference is a task that is a joy to do or one that is totally hateful!
Once cut, I then mow the meadow regularly as a normal lawn, even topping it once or twice in the winter if the weather is mild enough. In spring I continue to mow quite regularly, gradually increasing the cutting height until I stop totally about early May. This way, it does not become too unruly later on in the year.

The golden rule is to pick up and remove all clippings - leave lying on the surface and the fertility of the soil will begin to increase again.

Hardheads, the local name I learnt for Knapweed in my Chiltern Hills childhood, is a favourite flower of mine. Although normally purply-mauve (above), I found this bi-coloured one and some pure white flowered ones growing in an old meadow - rarities, indeed. I live in hope that they might appear one day in the secret valley!
Neglect does not create a meadow. If you don't work at it all you will end up with is a sheet of docks, nettles and thistles as has happened in this garden here - not a pretty sight!
And finally - don't collect plants from the wild: they have enough problems with survival without you adding to them! Collecting seed is probably ok (check any bye-laws first and get permission from the landowner) or buy seed or plants from specialist nurseries or garden centres.

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Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Life is always so hectic - rushing here, there and everywhere - that it is all too easy to forget to take time out, do nothing but contemplate .....

So sit back, enjoy the summer warmth while you can and relax......

Or find a place in the shade....

Or lie amongst the corn and gaze at the sky.....
Just my luck! I really tried to relax in my van whilst waiting for the rain to stop - again - it wasn't easy but at least I had time to take a photo through the windscreen ......

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Friday, 21 August 2009

The House My Parents Built: 200 Years ago....

Is there such a thing as reincarnation? That, or do ghosts exist, is a question that crops up fairly regularly over dinner with friends. My answer is 'I don't know' - then I tell them about my childhood recurring dream......
I walk up a long driveway and turn around a bend and there it is in front of me: the most perfectly proportioned house, typical of the sort a small child might draw. Then, in that disjointed but alright sort of way of dreams, I am at the back of the house. There are two arched windows with soil silted halfway up their frames.

I wriggle through the opening and drop to the floor, a few feet below. Standing up, I see I'm in a small circular room and, above me, see that the ceiling is cloistered like in an old abbey building. And then I wake up and feel so warm and good inside that I'm happy all day.

Year after year, I dream of this until my late twenties when, one day, I decide to draw the house, but I can only draw it as as a child would. The spell is broken and I never dream it again. And then 17 years later I go for an interview for a position as Head Gardener and find myself walking up a long driveway, turn around a bend and....I get the job.
Supplying pot plants and cut flowers for inside the house is all part of everyday working life and I find myself in a small circular room looking out of the half windows with their arched tops. The ceiling is plain plaster. 'How disappointing', I say as I tell the owner about the cloister. The ceiling is false, the house, after tragedy, had become a convent, the adjoining room was a chapel, who knows what is above the ceiling?
Apparantly, the son, an only child, died just before the house was completed. The obelisk at the front of the property was built to commemorate him and the parents moved away. And so, in the 21st century, so did I - reluctantly in some ways - to be with my new partner to live in the Cotswolds and a new career as a garden designer.
The house won't let go. Several weeks later I am asked to return on a regular basis as an adviser and I have been travelling there ever since - the last time to supervise the planting of lavender hedges and, when I return, I still get that warm, contented and happy feeling. Do I believe in reincarnation? I'm far too much a sceptic to say 'yes' but there are too many coincidences to give an emphatic 'no'.....

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Monday, 17 August 2009

Up, up and away

It is time to take you on an aerial tour of the Cotswold countryside and gardens and how better than by hot air balloon? This flight was my birthday present last spring, when the countryside was looking at its lushest best - the yellow fields of Rape contrasting vividly with the bright greens.
The layout of this garden near the village of Oddington is beautifully illustrated from the air - I wonder if the owners were ever so fortunate to see it from above?

The walled, organic gardens at Daylesford, too, are shown to be quite an unusual shape: the intricate design of the parterre giving way to a less formal area uses this to its advantage - a study in good design. Saxon ridge and furrow field systems are also shown in sharp relief. There are a lot of these around the Cotswolds and they can originate from as far back as a thousand years although many were worked up until a couple of hundred years ago. Now preserved and retained as pasture, often the drier, warmer ridges have quite different wild flowers growing compared with the damper furrows.
We 'touched down' in a field not far from the small town of Stow-on-the-Wold, shown in the photo below. Stow is famed for its twice annual Gypsy Horse Fair where travellers gather from all over the UK to buy and sell ponies and catch up with news. It is also well known for its exposed climate as in the local saying "Stow-on-the-Wold where the wind blows cold".

The balloon's shadow chasing us is a favourite photo as also is this one of the burners in full flame!

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Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Long Distance Painted Ladies

Butterflies are the most extraordinary creatures - so delicate to look at, yet they must be as tough as old boots to cope with the rigours of an English summer. For weeks now they have had to endure cool days and heavy rain but, with every burst of sunshine, out they come. And this year there seem to be more than ever.

And it's offical: it started in Spring when the BBC reported (so it must be true!) that clouds of Painted Ladies had been seen off the English coast, soon to arrive from annual migration from Africa. And sure enough, just a few days later, the hedgerows of the secret valley suddenly had dozens of them resting on the fresh new leaves and, every so often, stretching their wings to absorb what warmth there was.

Then just as suddenly they were gone! They had laid their eggs and, I assume died, their purpose in life over. Now they are back, or if I'm correct, their offspring are, feeding on the late summer nectar of the wild flowers and, in the garden, on the lavender and buddleia bushes.

The Peacocks, too, are plentiful but these we see all year round, for in the winter they come into the cottage and hibernate in between the folds of the curtains or some other dark place. Periodically, when the log burner is set on high and the house warms up, they fly around before settling down again for another long sleep. The one below is feeding in the garden on Phlox 'Hesperis', so called because of its similarity to the Dame's Violet - and just as beautifully fragrant.

It is the smaller butterflies that I especially like, the subdued markings of the Speckled Wood have the loveliest 'eye spots' on their wings, the colour of Devonshire clotted cream. The Gatekeeper is a much livelier and brighter coloured one, the one in the photo conveniently stopped for a moment on a wild scabious.

The 'blues' are the trickiest to identify. The two photographs below are of the Small Blue (I think), the female not looking very blue at all!

And soon all will be gone! Some migrating back to Africa or hibernating in a log pile or other sheltered place but the majority dying with the frosts,their species overwintering as pupa below the leaf litter to emerge as adults in the spring - which is, perhaps, the biggest test of 'as tough as old boots' of them all.

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Monday, 10 August 2009

Ten Plants Too Many

I find it impossible to imagine a life not being addicted to plants and the natural wonders all around us. So I find it quite difficult when I am asked to create a garden that requires no maintenance. After all, for people like me, its the tweaking and pinching out and getting in amongst the greenery that is part of the joy of being alive and certainly the best part of owning a garden.

Even mowing the lawn was a chore for the owners of this small town garden (I'm a bit inclined to agree with them there) and so it had to go. And, as far as they were concerned, ten plants would be ten plants too many. The design I came up with centred on this slate water feature - if there were to be no flowers then at least water would give the garden some 'life'.

We still needed a path from the house to the garage but to get away from a too solid look, I went for these 'old but new' cobbles set in gravel, the zig-zag line developing from the twist of the fountain. The same cobbles were used to create the patio area.

Left with a sea of gravel to the left of the path I decided to break the expanse up with a small 'lozenge' using the cobbles again. And much against the wishes of the client I built the timber raised planter along a wall with the promise that I would remove it for free if it became too much like hard work. My ruse worked for, when I returned a few months later, they had added some new pots at the foot of it - they were getting hooked!

I love these raised planters and find it difficult not to put them into every garden I create! They are easy to build and easy to maintain: they do not have a base but just sit on the ground. It's always the bottoms that rot out first anyway and also, like this, roots can get down deep and there is much less watering to do because of it. Below is another L shaped one I made as a divider between two levels in a different garden. One day I intend to turn one into a water feature in its own right - if you do it first make sure you send me a picture!

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