Is today the day?

I have had a worrying time recently, and have bored my husband half to death with my constant observations along the lines of “I wonder if one has arrived yet?” and “Perhaps today is the day”.

As we are awaiting the appearance of our first grandchild, you might think that’s the reason for my anxiety? Well of course that’s very important, but in fact the problem has been that for the first time in 30 years, the toads have not arrived in our pond.

I have been pondering (ha! pond-ering) whether it is the new fence that has stopped them or whether I have been too tidy in the shrubbery and whether I should not have got rid of the overgrown irises at the pond edges. To try to make amends, I have crawled along the new fence and created nice deep tunnels underneath (to the interest of my two terriers and the annoyance of my husband, who has no engineering knowledge and thinks this will weaken his expensive fence).

My neighbours on the other side have known me for a long time, so they have already assured me they will put any lost toads they find through the hole by our shed so they can find their way home.

Toads can travel up to 2 km to come back to the pond they grew up in to spawn, so imagine how many fences and what obstacles we humans put in their way on that journey? They live about 10-12 years, so in theory you should get more coming back each year.  I am afraid my little band has been dwindling in recent years, and I worry that the new fence may just make them give up and change their permanent address to a pond down the road.

Luckily, I am able to tell you that today there has been movement in the pond! It’s not heaving, like Monty’s pond on Gardeners World, but there are definitely a few happy toads in there, making their “chirrup” noises and sounding pleased (relieved?) to be home. No spawn yet, but I expect a happy ending to this story, any day now.

Kathy, March 2021

What’s in a name?

Two years ago my daughter bought me a houseplant which she had seen in a shop, but which she had not got a name for. It also didn’t look like anything I had seen before. Despite its rather delicate appearance, through the heat of summer 2020 it did extremely well in a south facing room, even much better than I had expected, but I was still no closer to identifying it.

Then, recently, while trawling through some photos of houseplants, I came across one of my plant!  It is called Asparagus Falcatus. Described thus: ‘Often known by the name, Sicklethorn, Asparagus falcatus is a variety of asparagus fern. It is a robust creeper, which is covered with thorns. The roots of this plant form swollen tubers that resemble sweet potatoes. This South African plant climbs rapidly by means of the sharp spines on its stems and is often used in that country as an impenetrable barrier.

Having finally identified the plant, the name now puzzled me. It looks nothing like asparagus and I wondered how it had acquired the designation. 

And now, in March, I find a shoot has come up from the compost. It is brown and quite thin and whippy, with what look like small thorns the length of the stem, but which are not in fact spiky at all. What’s more, the tip looks very much like asparagus!

So there I have it: Asparagus falcatus is named for this tender stem which looks like an asparagus spear and which has ‘thorns’ along its length – ‘falcatus’ means sickle shaped or hooked.

Vija, March 2021

February’s talk: Beth Chatto

Anna has written about last month’s talk:

“Many of us who are avid and long-time fans of Beth Chatto’s garden and her Unusual Plants Nursery will always remember that she won 10 consecutive Gold Medals at the Chelsea flower show.  
Her legacy is a garden she created which is unlike any other in the UK and abroad: it is unique.

Dr Catherine Horwood, Beth Chatto’s authorised biographer, introduced Beth Chatto to members and guests via last Monday evening’s Zoom meeting.

The talk was about Beth Chatto’s personal life and the influences that led to the garden’s creation. We learned that she happily gardened alongside her parents and had her own garden patch of cottage garden flowers. And we know that her hobby as a flower arranger as a young woman hugely influenced her interest in plant forms, textures and colours.

Dr Horwood described Beth Chatto as ‘tough’ and ‘steely’, and she must have been extremely determined from a young age, as she trained as a teacher during WW2, instead of taking the usual route of joining the Forces.  An advantageous marriage to a fruit farmer, Andrew Chatto, with a life-long interest in plant ecology, set the stage for the purchase of land at Elmstead Market and the garden that followed.

But why did Beth Chatto design the garden the way she did?  We know she was influenced by the terrain and various soil conditions, in addition to a natural spring at the lower level. How did her design of a ‘necklace of ponds’ separated by very  narrow water channels come about?   We know she was influenced by her friend and mentor, Cedric Morris in those early days and Beth Chatto acknowledges the huge debt to her husband at the start of her book, ‘The Dry Garden’, in which she states: “Without Andrew neither my garden nor a book would have been possible”.

chattocoverfront.jpg

Artists and Gardens

Catherine Horwood’s mention of Cedric Morris in her talk is a reminder of the close relationship between artists and their gardens. In 2016 The Royal Academy held a wonderful exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse’, which devoted one room to Monet’s triptych of waterlilies. Many of us have had the pleasure of visiting his garden at Giverny, which is the subject of some of his most famous works of art.

Claude Monet The Water Lily Pond (National gallery)

Alfred Parsons (1847 – 1920) was an English artist who not only created his own garden, but designed for others. He provided the illustrations for many famous garden writers including Ellen Willmott (The Genus Rosa) and William Robinson (The Wild Garden). His friendship with Robinson led to him lending advice on the planting at Gravetye Manor.

Parsons had a wide mix of friends in both America and England, including John Singer Sargent and the novelist Henry James. Parsons’ paintings apparently mirrored the aspirations of Americans for an English garden and in 1899, when Henry James bought Lamb House in Rye, he invited Parsons to design the garden for him. It was here that he wrote some of his most acclaimed novels. Lamb House was much later bought by E.F. Benson and the view of the garden from the windows provided the inspiration for the Mapp and Lucia novels. In 2014, the BBC adapted these for a television series and used the garden at Lamb House for filming.

Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson in the garden at Lamb House

And so, to Cedric Morris. As well as painting portraits, still lifes and landscapes, Morris painted flowers extensively. In Higham Suffolk, he and his partner founded the East Anglia School of Art, but here Morris also indulged his passion for plants and, in particular, irises. He produced at least 90 named varieties and also exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show. His gravestone reads ‘Cedric Morris Artist and Plantsman’.

Cedric Morris Iris Seedlings, 1943, Tate Gallery

I am often struck by how much a beautifully designed herbaceous border, the Long Border at Great Dixter for example, resembles a work of art.

Vija, February 2021

Weather-proofing the garden

I have spent some time over the past two days trying to protect the more tender plants I still have outside. The greenhouse is full and there is nowhere else for anything to go, short of bringing everything indoors! I therefore have varying layers of fleece and old sheets propped up with canes to keep them clear of the plants and all looking very ugly.  With a weather forecast now predicting temperatures of -6 I have added blankets.

I look with envy to countries like Japan who so effectively seem to support their plants, making the supporting structure a thing of beauty in itself. The technique below is called yakitsuri and I first saw it in a Monty Don television series. This is designed to stop the weight of the snow from breaking the branches of the trees.

Similarly, the woven willow used to support border plants through the summer in our own gardens such as Great Dixter is not only functional, but looks nice.

When Pat and I visited in a brief respite from lockdown in 2020, to protect dahlias from slugs at Great Dixter, they had used sheep’s wool spread out over the soil at the base of plants. Where this was dark brown it worked, but the white sheep’s wool was not in the least appealing and detracted from the overall beauty of the borders.

(Photo NOT from Great Dixter, just an example.)

There is an art to protecting your plants in winter (or summer) in a way that looks attractive, or at the very least not as offensive as my own efforts and is which not damaging to the environment. I have yet to master it.

Vija, Feb 12, 2021

The English Landscape

Heart of Oak – Royal Navy Anthem

I recently attended a lecture (on Zoom of course!) about Thomas Gainsborough and his connection to the English landscape. Many people will be familiar with his portraits, but the landscapes in the background are not always commented on so widely, unless it is the painting of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which seems to be the subject of a huge range of interpretations (not all repeatable in a horticultural blog perhaps).

The 18th century was a period of great upheaval – the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720 triggering a financial panic; in 1721 the country had its first prime minister in Sir Robert Walpole; in 1739 Britain declared war on Spain; in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to claim the British throne; in 1756 the Seven Years war between Britain and France began; there was unrest both in America and at home and throughout this period, there was a Hanoverian king. It is all too easy to forget that two of the great names associated with landscape architecture, William Kent and Lancelot Brown, were working against this background, with Brown finding little favour with the ordinary person by uprooting and moving whole villages when they stood in the way of his designs.

It is also no coincidence that Brown, Kent and their peers were creating landscapes which came to be seen as quintessentially English. Reacting against the formality of the classic gardens which were inspired by those on the continent and France in particular, they designed gardens that were intended to reflect the ‘sinuous curves’ of the English countryside. Ironically, Brown, who never travelled outside the shores of his home island, was inspired by the paintings of French artists such as Poussin.

Nicolas Poussin Landscape with Figures c1646

In the background of Gainsborough’s paintings, this same concern with the natural is evident. Even in his most famous portraits, for example the one of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the actress Perdita. Both show an English landscape populated by English trees, most commonly the oak.

Duchess of Devonshire, Thomas Gainsborough

Mrs. Mary Robinson (Perdita) Thomas Gainsborough

Apparently, as Gainsborough was not a ‘plein air’ artist, in order to remind himself of the shape of the oak he would arrange stems of sprouting broccoli in front of his easel!

This tension between what is an English garden and what is from mainland Europe has influenced garden design throughout history.

With the RHS encouraging people to plant a tree in their Roots for Remembrance, a nationwide memorial initiative, it seems an appropriate time to think about the role of the oak in English landscape culture.

Vija, Feb 2021

Local wildlife in Paula’s garden

CABAHS Committee member Paula has been grateful for the distraction of wildlife-watching during the Lockdown, and has been reading up about it. Paula’s garden style is “not manicured” but she does like to keep things under control – things such as ivy. She says that ivy can cover a multitude of sins and like it or not, it certainly helps out the local wildlife. Plus it is evergreen and makes a lovely backdrop about now, when everything else has lost its colour. She was intrigued to learn that there is an Ivy Bee, one to watch out for this year. The Wildlife Trust says that ivy bees are recent arrivals to the UK, being first recorded in 2001 and slowly spreading North. They look like honey bees and feed mainly on ivy nectar. There doesn’t seem to be anything bad known about them so at the moment they are welcome!

Paula has also been bird watching and says another “new” arrival to our gardens is the Collared Dove, a less bulky version of the native Wood Pigeon.

They are normally seen in pairs (a good Valentine omen maybe!) and come to bird feeding stations sometimes. They are not native but arrived from the Middle East in the 1950’s – a bit like the Green Parakeets that are now all over the South East, although not such a pest. They are mainly seed and berry eaters and if they raise a brood successfully they often return to the same nest site.

If you would like to find out more, try these links:

https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/wildlife-explorer/invertebrates/bees-and-wasps/ivy-bee

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/collared-dove/

Paula, February 2021

New Year’s Resolutions

I hadn’t really thought about a New Year’s resolution for 2021, apart from the one that most of us have in the forefront of our minds at the moment: test negative, stay positive. (Sent to me in a Christmas card by a friend). But as we get closer to the end of January, to move forward into the year without one seems a bit neglectful.

I was therefore interested to read about the drive to encourage people to save seed and to encourage seed saving communities to develop. One of the few upsides of the lockdowns over the past year has been a huge boost in demand for seed. The argument is that this “grow your own” revolution re-diversifies seed crops and provides more security for not only our seed supplies, but food in general.

Josie Cowgill, one of the women who works with the Stroud Community Seed Bank in Gloucestershire sums up the impact of seed-saving in the context of 2020: “It’s difficult times we are living in. We have got a pandemic, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got biodiversity loss, habitat loss and economic collapse as well. It might feel quite small, just saving beans and growing your own food, but actually I think it is really fundamental. By doing something infinitesimally small like this tiny little gesture in a tiny little group, in a tiny little country somewhere, you are working towards something that makes you feel more hopeful. It’s a positive step. I’m not saying this is a magic wand or a cure-all, but it’s a positive step.”

Former ‘Bake Off’ winner Nancy Birtwhistle claims we have been ‘brainwashed’ into believing we need harsh chemicals to clean our homes. In an interview with her, what caught my attention was the amount of plant-based materials she used. It sounds miraculous, but she swears by ivy as a laundry detergent (about 60g, cut up and put in a muslin bag, then put in the drum). “It excites me so much; my husband thinks I’m crackers. I knew in the depths of my memory something about ivy and saponin [a natural foaming detergent], so I Googled it. Conkers have it as well.” (Although we should remember that ivy can be a skin irritant for some people.) In the autumn, she collects conkers and boils them up to create a creamy laundry liquid. (Nancy Birtwhistle’s book Clean & Green is published on 21 January by Pan Macmillan £12.99).I’m prepared to give this one a try, but have visions of a ‘green’ wash in a way I did not intend.

Food for thought.

Vija, January 2021

Celebrating Candlemas

This year, for the first time, I decided to put up a Christmas light curtain along the back windows of my house, never thinking that it would be such a difficult job! Having finally got the things up, with a good deal of foul language, I have felt reluctant to take them down. As well as the candles and lights around the house they have provided a welcome point of light in a rather dim January.

Imagine my delight when I heard a representative from English Heritage talking about Candlemas on the radio recently. Apparently, a tradition preceding the one which instructs us to take down Christmas decorations on the twelfth night, this allows for decorations to remain until Candlemas – the second day of February, which means that my lights can stay put for some time yet!

And snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells as they bloom so early in the year, and often before February 2nd. At one time it was believed that it was bad luck to bring these flowers into the house before Candlemas, but an opposing view has it that they are believed to purify the home. According to folklore, an angel helped these Candlemas Bells to bloom and pointed them out as a sign of hope to Eve and the flower is thus often seen as a sign of hope for the world.

It seems to me that everything comes together quite neatly: lights, illumination, snowdrops and hope. I think I will continue with this tradition!

Vija, January 2021

Philosophical Gardening (Vija)

Ravilious “Garden ” design for ceramics

Beginning 2021 on a philosophical note – Voltaire said that it is necessary to cultivate your garden. Andrew Marvell said that green thoughts come from any green shade. More recently, Marc Hamer in his latest book ‘Seed to Dust’ uses his cultivation of someone else’s garden as a catalyst for a range of philosophical meditations. His chapters begin with a gardening task but lead onto thoughts about life itself and his part in it.

I was reminded of ‘Plot 29’, Allan Jenkins’ book about the healing power of gardening, in which he gives an often heartbreaking portrayal of the violence and neglect of children, growing into an adult who seeks solace in tending a London allotment.

In their book ‘The Meaning of Gardens’ Mark Francis and Randolph Hester argue that gardens have meanings and go on to explore six categories of meaning: faith, power, ordering, cultural expression, personal expression and healing, each of which can operate at a social or an individual level. Jane Brown’s wonderful book ‘The Pursuit of Paradise’ aptly sums up the meaning of gardens for many of us: the desire to create something which may be not only useful, but a pleasure to be in.


Eric Ravilious: The Tortoise in the Kitchen garden

Whether your mind strays to such philosophical thoughts or not, there is a simple joy to be had in growing and nurturing and then enjoying the fruits of that labour, whether it be the beauty of a cactus dahlia or the taste of a home grown tomato, still warm from the sun.

Vija, January 2021