Visiting great gardens…

Just back from a week in East Sussex, re-living childhood holidays with my sister.  As children we spent two weeks every summer with an aunt who lived in Battle, Sussex.  Last week we took the respective husbands to see where we spent holidays from when we were babies ’til we were 16 or so.  Having lost both parents last year, it was a poignant few days, but also filled with happy memories and lots of laughing (howling with laughter as we excavated forgotten stories of games, parental bad behaviour, sibling bad behaviour, and the kind of tales that only 2 sixty-plus year old sisters can generate).  But lovely though that was, this blog is not about our nostalgia-fest.

We spent some time visiting gardens, as you do.  We made a trip to Dungeness to see Derek Jarman’s garden (of course), and who can visit East Sussex without a trip to Great Dixter and pay homage to the late, great Christopher Lloyd?  Sissinghurst also made it onto the agenda, although I am always nervous that these touchstones of garden visiting will disappoint (it didn’t).

I’ve been to Dungeness before – I can’t resist these bleak, open spaces – all sea breeze, shingle and sparse, gorse-covered mounds around the old water-filled gravel pits.  The RSPB reserve there always turns up a rarity or two.  But this visit was about the landscape and Derek Jarman’s garden fits into it perfectly.  Visible from the road the little black-tarred cottage with its jaunty yellow window frames invites you to take a closer look and although many of the flowering plants were over – the Crambe, the Santolina – it is still an inspiring delight of flotsam sculpture, beech-combed items displayed carefully and the whitened stones from the beach a structural theme.  It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I have always loved it. IMG_0126



I haven’t been to Great Dixter for probably ten years.  Although it’s another favourite of mine, I have been nervous of visiting since Christopher Lloyd’s death.  Last time we were there the great man himself came down the terrace steps as we were approaching them on our way to the Long Border.  He raised a hand to us and walked off down into the meadow, dachshund at his heels.  It was a ‘hold-your-breath’ kind of moment.  The front of the house is still beautiful, with the pots full of colour as always, and the oak beams silvered in the late sun.  There is the most beautiful small border curving away from the right of the house planted with silver, purple and pink.  Sadly, I didn’t have the camera so you’ll have to imagine!  The pool garden was also looking well, although it’s hard not to be beautiful with that huge expanse of tiled roof on the barn forming the perfect backdrop.  I love the exotic garden – a big improvement on the roses that were there before – and the long border, even as it turns towards the end of the season – was still impressive with orange and yellow daisies, dahlias and the structure of giant thistle particularly effective.  In fact the dahlias were magnificent throughout the garden.  The topiary was freshly clipped and so looking perfect against the blowsy, overgrown, overstocked flower beds that are a mark of that part of the garden.  I think earlier in the year I would have been enchanted, as it was I felt overwhelmed by the height of everything in those beds – even the nasturtiums were growing at eye-level – but as always the grouping and the juxtaposition of plants makes you stop and stare.  There were some particularly tall, deep red dahlias set in front of a clump of green and white variegated bamboo (I think) that was just a stunning combination, in fact, the dahlias all over the garden were fabulous – there were pom-pom dahlias in the pond garden that had flowers the size of your head!  And next year I am definitely growing Eupatorium wherever I can fit it in.

As someone who loves gardens and gardening I am ashamed to say that I have never visited Sissinghurst, so this week’s visit was the fulfilment of a 40 year intention.  I have read (a lot) about Vita and her lovers and Harold and his, and of course about the making of that romantic garden.  That whole Bohemian thing is magnetic – Vita, Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury group, Violet Trefusis, Augustus John, Dora Carrington and the rest.  Pushing social and sexual boundaries, living in a way that was (at the time) outrageous and exciting.  But the devotion of Vita and Harold through years of extra-marital relationships on both sides is fascinating and enthralling.  There is a LGBTQ exhibition at Sissinghurst at the moment which is well worth a visit if you go to the garden.


There is something about the old red brick and tile of Kent and East Sussex that makes the perfect environment for the quintessentially English garden that Sissinghurst has become.  The White Garden, almost a cliché, but still beautiful at the end of September with fading roses and jasmine and the cool pergola offering shade to sit in one corner.  An autumnal border in the late afternoon sun was glorious and a few simple Sedum plants in a stone container were fresh lemon and lime and quite lovely.

In the orchard there were autumn crocus and colchicum studding the rough grass and the windfall fruit were dropping even as we walked across the ground.  Near the moat the acorns plopped into the water and showered onto our heads as we took shelter in Vita’s writing gazebo with its view of the Kent countryside rolling away to the horizon.  How could anyone write even 200 words a day with the distraction of the garden and the view? As at Great Dixter, the dahlias were many, various and magnificent.  I fell in love with the shoo-fly plant (Nicandra Physalodes) still flowering as it set seed in its black-veined lanterns.  The gardeners were busy in the borders but friendly and helpful, identifying plants from our sketchy descriptions and offering advice on where they might do well.  It may not have been the glory of high summer, but there were fewer visitors and the gardens could be seen in comfort with vistas clear and empty paths.  I should have visited before.  I will visit again.

The Optimistic Gardener


Passata and planting…

Another four weeks without a blog.  I have been busy in my non-gardening life for a little while  – a flurry of activity which I hope will soon calm down and return me to the relaxation of the garden and pleasing only myself. (Lord, that’s a bit Jane Austen, isn’t it? – although I am watching ‘Emma’ as I write, and am surely over influenced).  Stop it.

The garden is wet.  The weeds love it.  The slugs love it.  Lots of things have mildew.  I (well, Mr OG really) am catching 6 – 10 slugs every morning; they are huge.  I have had to pull up all the red cabbage, as caterpillars (Small White butterfly) have decimated them. Next year I plan to catch and kill as many of these white butterflies as I can.  Please do not protest and beg for clemency on their behalf.  Those bloody green stripey caterpillars are a menace.  Short of shrouding the whole garden in netting, attempting annihilation is the only answer.

The last of the greenhouse tomatoes have been picked  and the old stems composted.  I have been making passata with the tomatoes.  I find some shop-bought passata can be bitter, and I prefer the lighter texture and taste of home-made.  It’s easy to make:

1kg of tomatoes cut into quarters or halves if they’re small, 3 cloves of garlic, halved, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of sugar.  Put the toms, oil and garlic into a pan, cover and cook over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes have squished down.  Give them a stir from time to time to turn them and make sure they all get cooked.  Remove the lid, add plenty of salt and pepper and the sugar and boil them open for about 5 minutes so that the garlic softens.  Remove from the heat and push everything through a sieve into a large measuring jug.  Keep pushing it all through until there are only skins and seeds left in the sieve.  If you don’t want it too garlicky then don’t push all the garlic through.  Make sure you scrape the underside of the sieve as the passata will cling there and you don’t want to lose any.  Let it cool, jar it to keep for a week in the fridge, or freeze it in a couple of portions to use within 3 months.  It’s good in soups, sauces, casseroles etc.

The last, late sowings of beetroot and chard are up and doing well, the chard especially.  I hope the beetroot will have time to root up.  This week I’m going to be clearing half a bed to plant over-wintering onion sets.  Japanese onions.  I shall clear the bed of weeds and then put down a weed-suppressing membrane and plant the onions through that.  The other half of the bed has parsnips and swede in, waiting for the first frosts before I pull them.  I’m also about to order some elephant garlic to plant in the same bed.  I’ve never grown elephant garlic before so am interested to see how it turns out.  Mr OG and I both like garlic but in small amounts, so the milder flavour of elephant garlic should suit us well.

Tonight we are forecast gale force winds and heavy rain, so once the work is done we will be battening down everything that can move!  Hope it’s fine where you are.  Here’s some verbena, hydrangea, lychnis and geum to cheer you up!


The Optimistic Gardener

Some serious pruning…

So…it’s stopped raining and I finally managed to get a couple of hours in the garden. There are shrubs that are seriously overgrown and need dealing with – also I have a new pair of loppers and have been itching to try them out on something substantial.

On the right, at the back of the border that faces the house, there is a very neglected cluster of shrubs that have grown through and over each other. Chief of these is an elderly Ceanothus, I think ‘Gloire de Versailles’, and an Olearia. overgrownshrubsThe Olearia has made a compact bush about 4 feet high but has no foliage on its lower half and was looking dry and unhappy. That’s been taken down virtually to ground level and hopefully the stump will come out tomorrow. Removing it made it easier to get at the old Ceanothus which was more of a tree! Too much even for the new loppers, so the pruning saw and a branch saw had to come into play.

I’m actually very fond of the Ceanothus, it’s always a cloud of blue flowers in spring and fresh, light green foliage but it was waving about in the breeze just a bit too much with some very leggy growth over the past two years. So,  and I can hear your sharp intake of breath when you look at the photo, I’ve sort of pollarded it…. ceanothus-pruneI guess it’s do or die through the winter now. At least now I can see to assess the state of the Cotinus which has been beautiful this year (see above) but again, is very overgrown and shapeless. If the worst comes to the worst then it will have to be replacements  for these in the spring. Once all the debris was cleared away,  a poor spindly rose that had been completely muscled out was discovered, so I shall try to rescue that. I think it might be called ‘Scorpio’ but I’m not sure. I am realising why serious gardeners draw plans and write down what they have planted where. 🙂

I used the shredder for the first time this autumn – two big buckets of wood chips will be useful as mulch and to contribute to a pathway behind the shrubs and against the fence. If there is a clear space to get to the back of the border I ought to be able to keep these unruly shrubs in better order. Hoping for a dry week!

The Optimistic Gardener

‘The mellow year is hasting to its close…’*

On Sunday a band of long-tailed tits flits through the garden, like animated fuzzy lollipops. They land in almost every shrub and bob about, but they don’t stay long and rarely visit the feeders. I shall have to review the menu.

The rest of the week is wet, wet, wet. But at least I can be useful just looking out of the window. I’ve signed up to the Woodland Trust as a recorder of ‘Nature’s Calendar ‘. That means I take note of the effects of the seasons on plants and animals and record those changes on the Trust’s website. Find out about it here . It’s simple and it’s easy to do if you’ve got half an interest in your surroundings. Citizen science – it’s a great way to get involved.

Winter feels a lot closer this week. By Wednesday there is not a leaf left on the acer or the whitebeam and the sky is grey and low. A thin, spiteful wind shivers through the border and I only stay out long enough to turn the compost tumbler and check that the summerhouse is watertight. Why did I start a garden blog in November?

img_0068At the end of the week my good intentions to get out for a walk come to nothing in the face of driving rain and very blustery winds. The racing greyness of the sky intimidates and depresses and the few leaves that are left whirl about the garden in a kind of desperation. There is bright sky on the northern horizon but the weather sweeps in endlessly from the west. It really does feel like the turn of autumn into winter. I shall reconcile myself to this inevitability over the next week or so and begin to console myself with the seed tin, the catalogues and dreams of next year’s beauty and bounty.

The Optimistic Gardener

*November (Sonnet XVI).  Hartley Coleridge, 1833

Rain stops play

I watched a blackbird tumbling today. He was trying to land in the rowan tree to get at a huge cluster of berries but the leaf stems wouldn’t take his weight. Again and again he tried to land, and again and again he fell straight out of the tree. After a while he perched on the fence and stared at the scarlet temptation, head cocked to one side, looking totally confused. There are two cock blackbirds around the garden, not yet territorial so tolerating each other’s presence, but it won’t be long before one takes charge. There are more birds visiting the feeders now in the late afternoon, filling up to get through the longer, colder nights. Soon, watching the birds will be the major garden activity.

No actual gardening done this week. It’s rained quite a lot and our clay soil is cold, wet and sticky. It’s difficult enough, without compacting it further by walking on it. Also, Mr Optimistic Gardener has been at home so we have been doing other domestic chores and planning for next year’s veg. With ‘high’ raised beds being my preference, there are some choices to be made about what we can fit in the space. And we have to clear the ground where the beds will go – at the moment it has the spoil from where the summerhouse base was dug out.

The border still has some interest – the verbena bonariensis is waving its purple-tufted, skinny arms above everything, old reliable ‘Bowles Mauve’ erysimum has flowers, and img_0046there are a few lingering snapdragon. The cotinus is hanging on to its maroon leaves against the pale green of a very overgrown ceanothus – so still some pruning and cutting back to be done. A couple of dry days – that’s all I need.

The Optimistic Gardener

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my recommended reading on the menu at the top of the page.

Autumn anticipation

It’s cold outside. There’s a deceptive pale blue sky and the sun is flaming the rowan tree like a scarlet, burning torch, but the temperature is in single figures and there’s a shivering wind from the north-west. I’ve been out in the garden planting tulip bulbs in pots – 50 or 60 bulbs, good compost, a bit of grit. They will make a great show in spring.

I love a blowsy tulip – the frilled doubles, the parrot, the splashed bi-colours. Not for me the neat little uprights with their tight buds, prim and tidy. I grow them to pick and bring indoors – great vases full of those open cups, yellow and brown powdering stamens, stems bending and turning, my real version of a Dutch still life!

I always plant fresh bulbs in late autumn, and this year I saved last year’s bulbs for the first time. I’m going to put them randomly into the front of the border and see if they do anything. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! But not today, too cold.

But back to the pots. I was accompanied by a robin, never more than two or three feet away, hopping about, head on one side, watching me with a liquid brown eye. Waiting for worms, I suppose, not realising that pots and compost bring no wriggling lunch. I hope we shall be friends through the winter. Such a fearless little thing.

The wind has brought more leaves off the whitebeam, so another raking session and additions to the leaf mould pile created a bit of warmth before going in for tea and spiced honey cake, made yesterday.

The Optimistic Gardener

P.S. I have added a page to this blog called ‘I’m reading…’ (see the contents line above). It tells you just that – what I’m reading at the moment. I hope it gives you some ideas.

Autumn leaves

Another lovely day here. Foggy this morning and the foghorn on the estuary was hooting away. It’s a strangely comforting sound – low pitched and regular. Blue sky soon prevailed though and the temperature got up to about 18 degrees. It seems weird to have such temperatures as we head into November. Not that I’m complaining! There’s so much to do in the garden I’m glad of any extension of good gardening weather.

We have a five year old whitebeam tree in the east end of the garden. I am in two minds whether to keep it or not. It’s behind the garage and very close to where I’m planning to have a shed. I also feel as though I’m wasting space having a tree that isn’t productive i.e. fruiting, in such a small garden. In the meantime, it’s productive in one way – lots of fallen leaves for leaf mould!

I made a container for the leaves – just four canes and some netting and collect as many leaves ( not evergreen) as possible. Keep them damp and covered and (eventually) they’ll rot down into lovely crumbly leaf mould that I can use for mulch or to mix with compost. If you don’t have enough leaves to bother with a container, you can squash them into a bin bag, moisten them a bit, and seal them in. Poke a few holes in the bag and wait. Everything I read about making leaf mould says it takes forever. I’m going to have to work on my patience!img_0051