August 25, 2019

Caroline’s Garden Diaries 25.9.2014: Just looking

Needed a walk so I wandered up the hill and walked round the garden of a posh house that you can hire for events, Carmen de los Martires. I’ve always liked it as a place to walk and though never thought it a particularly special garden, it has some nice formal terraces.

It’s been transformed – jumps up my league table of great gardens! Noticed last year they were doing something on what was a hot bare hillside, out of bounds and too steep anyway to walk up; but now there’s new planting and most importantly, paths. So now you can zig-zag up to the walls, the route lined with sculpted lavenders and rosemary, and round each corner, what do you see? New views over the Alhambra, the most stunningly beautiful, interesting and famous palace in Spain, and of all the surrounding mountains.

Returned yesterday to photograph the garden, and also to see if there’s more to it than its views. After all, I had just walked up an even higher hillside outside the city and saw not only the whole of Granada with all its beautiful buildings, but also olive groves, pine forests, Sierra Nevada…… So why is the garden now special? It’s quite a big walled garden set on two hillsides meeting in a little valley. The ups and downs with winding paths are crucial, creating endless views within as well as views without. The walls step down interestingly, and enclosing such a large area (10 acres?), don’t seem restrictive, but just add contrast of colour and structure.

And once I really start looking, then it comes home to me how well chosen and planted are the trees – great collection, including oaks, planes, chestnuts, pines, cedars, olives, acers, Judas trees, ginkgoes (hurray!), brilliant landscaping; Italian cypresses always a winner in that sort of place and there’s new ones along the winding paths.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 20.5.2014: Getting to grips

I first grew the cup-and-saucer plant, called Cobea, from seed given away in a magazine – had never heard of it before, but thought I’d give it a go – and what a discovery, it’s amazing! The flowers are quite extraordinary, starting with the huge sculptural buds, pink with marked green veins that turn into the “saucer”, from which a green “cup” then pushes out, becoming purple as it does so. It’s gorgeous.

That was in 2009. Despite its gorgeousness, I didn’t repeat the experiment until this year when I wanted something to replace a failed clematis. Bought seed this time, and they’re away. Cobea is a climber and my goodness, it’s ambitious, reaching for the sky. As soon as it has its first two proper leaves, the tendrils start to unfurl and in a day or two, they’re several inches long and climbing up whatever stands close to it – including a human finger if you look at it for more than a few seconds.

Cobea’s method of climbing is interesting; the tendrils don’t grip by curling round a support as sweet pea, and it doesn’t twine its stem round as a bean might. Its long tendrils are very fine and many-branched, each being equipped with tiny hooks; the tendril waves around until it touches something, which the hooks then grasp, the tendril rapidly shortens and hauls the plant upwards. I know about this because I’ve been watching it through a hand-lens – yes, very nerdy but only copying Darwin who did this sort of thing in his garden. And as he knew, when you look closely at nature, it’s turns out to be quite sinister. Bad news for the clematis that meanwhile has regrown and is politely twining round its obelisk.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 4.5.2014: Greener on this side

There’s so much happening in the garden that you need to look round it at least twice a day, and even a few days away at this time of year are painful. Missed it while away in Devon, but while there, visited an interesting garden, rather hippyish, i.e. wild with large statues of pigs. Also found two wonderful tree nurseries within a mile of each other. Couldn’t fit the tulip tree in the car but have come back with a couple of uncommon shrubs.
Hadn’t planned for the shrubs, they were simply on the bucket list, Deutzia pulchra that Roy Lancaster had raved about, and Enkianthus campanulatus that I love from seeing it in Ray Wood. But meanwhile, the garden is getting fuller by the minute; the new shrubs are more a shoehorning than a shoo-in.

As well as getting fuller, with plants filling out and growing up, there’s a big colour change in the garden, most prominently in what I think of as the spring bed; I’m just realizing that it isn’t because it has a lot of spring flowers, hellebores and special primulae, but because it has a beech hedge as its backdrop. And once a beech tree starts to come into leaf, you don’t see the flowers any more – the effect of that curtain of zinging green is so overwhelming that they lose their impact, spring is over.

Maybe I can learn to see it as also an early summer bed that is a shrine to new-beech-leaf-green. Then change ideas about suitable planting; what is working is a big block of tall euphorbias in full flower, whose yellowy-green is a perfect complement.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 8.4.2014: To dig or not to dig?

Had a busy garden week, visiting gardens and then planting out new plants. It’s the time of year that inspires me to do the sort of gardening I like best, walking round with a trowel looking for plants I can divide and put into new places (more primroses!)  It’s a time also when it feels possible to do the work I find daunting, renewing and changing areas that have got out of hand.

Reinvigorating the garden is hard work if you’re digging out things that have been there a long time, although after a lifetime of using a fork, I’ve finally accepted that spades are better. But in changing, you risk losing things; putting in a new day-lily, I stupidly dug up a little group of Love-in-a Mist seedlings self-sown from last year; similarly, I’ve lost potential generations of scillas in one area that I’m unhappy with and keep disturbing. Meanwhile, Anemone blanda is showing what’s possible if you leave things alone – they have spread very satisfyingly because their home hasn’t been disturbed. There’s something very peaceful about a garden that looks as if the plants have always been there.

As always, however, it’s a matter of balance. A garden I visited this week was Beth Chatto’s. Mecca! But something was wrong – although it’s a lovely garden, I wasn’t swooning with delight to be there. Partly, I think, location, location – that part of Essex is not a terrifically beautiful landscape, and the setting for a garden can add a lot. Or was it something more uncomfortable; much of the garden was overrun with Arum “Marmoratum”, Italian lords-and-ladies that I wrote about last year after merrily spreading it around. As a Beth Chatto’s disciple, I worship the natural approach, but nature needed a slap there.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 25.3.2014: Returning to Earth

Not that I’ve been to outer space, but returning from down under with consequent jet-lag and confusion of seasons is a bit discombobulating and so it’s to the garden I turn for grounding. For the last two weeks in Australia I’d been looking forward to seeing if the broad beans are through that I sowed the day before we left. So first thing, having brought in the luggage and put the kettle on, I went to the greenhouse, and yehaar! The beans are up! Not quite the thrusting trayful I’d imagined but there’s 9 or 10 looking promising.

I was mocked for this wish; in the midst of all that Sydney has to offer, to want to go back to England to see a lowly bean was considered a bit odd. It’s what the Beanz mean that draws me home. Waiting for seeds to germinate is always exciting, and broad beans mean the gardening season is under way, with added promise of home-grown deliciousness that you can’t buy in shops, certainly not in a big city.

I was also looking forward to sowing other new seeds, especially Ginkgo and Pennisetum. Growing a Ginkgo tree whose lineage goes back 350 million years seems like an amazing adventure although having read up on how to grow them, I’m stalling – very complicated, involving bleach, fridges and poly bags. How did it manage in pre-fridge days?

Pennisetum is a beautiful grass that I bought one plant of last summer and thought it would be fun to see as babies. The University where we stay in Sydney had masses of it in a lovely planting so again I wanted to go home and grow my own. Despite going to university, they can’t read – the packet says “germination may take several months” and they’ve germinated after 2 days!

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 26.2.2014: Giving a fig

I’ve always noticed the fig trees growing along the streets and in the parks of Sydney but it was only recently that I came actually to like them. At first I had no idea what they were, they’re so different from figs in Europe. We used to have a fig just outside the back door of our first house, with beautiful leaves traditionally shaped for adorning oneself when necessary, but I didn’t like figs to eat. Only in 1980 waiting on a roadside in Yugoslavia did I discover how heavenly is a ripe fig straight from the tree.

These fig trees native to Australia are something else. Yes, they’re from Ficus genus and you can eat the fruits as “bush tucker” (but beware, that means eat only when lost and starving in the bush), fruit bats love them (beware again – have you seen a fruit bat? Not someone I’d share a table with). But the leaves look nothing like the biblical ones – they’re a more normal leaf shape and not very big so wouldn’t go far in covering you. One is known as “Sandpaper Fig” – could be useful as a hairshirt…..

Up to now, it’s their size that has impressed. The older trees are massive, their trunks looking like several elephants rolled together, with spreading branches big enough to shade an entire playground. Some species have enormous buttress roots that look like walls surrounding the tree and that spread the length of cricket pitches. Added to that, they have long aerial roots dangling down that look as if they’ll grab you. Indeed, some figs can be “stranglers”; they develop from seeds landing on other trees, then murder their hosts by sending down aerial roots to the ground that gradually smother their host. Not nice.

My change of heart happened while walking a different route through Sydney’s Hyde Park along a double avenue of a variety called “Hill’s Figs”. The trees are typically huge but without the sinister bits, they just generously shade and refresh.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 18.02.2014: Out of the Ashes

This is not really about gardens at all, more to do with plants in relation to climate. I’ve just returned from a trip to the Blue Mountains where there were terrible fires only 4 months ago; it must have been a very frightening experience to be up there at the time but it was fascinating to see what’s happened since. I knew that the flora of Australia has evolved to cope with fire but to see with my own eyes how life returns so quickly was absolutely amazing – leaves were bursting out of every blackened tree trunk and stump, and all over the burnt forest floor. New growth just pushes out of the trunks (“epicormic growth” – you see it on Judas trees in the garden, and on badly pruned trees) and from the base of ruined plants, and little seedlings spring up everywhere. It’s all so beautiful, the new leaves looking fresh and healthy with lovely colours that normally we’d find only in spring.

Several of the eucalypts have another adaptation to fire that is to drop their bark, leaving the trunks with wonderful patterns made by patches of exposed wood, especially in the “scribbly-gums” whose bark is scribbled on by insects boring tunnels through it.

Lots of the plants actually rely on fire to reproduce. One such we saw a lot of in the bush is called the Old-man Banksia, (of the genus Banksia, named for Banks, the botanist who went with Captain Cook) who waits for fire before shooting seeds everywhere. One plant was completely burnt but its seedpods remained, opened since the fire, and surrounded by beautiful new shoots.

If only the England cricket team and Captain Cook could come back from the Ashes so triumphantly………

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 10.2.2014: Back down under

Guess what, had to buy an umbrella here – thought I wouldn’t need one. But they desperately need the rain after driest summer for a decade so mustn’t complain; so-called lawns are shrivelled-up brown or even just sand. It’s striking that the freshest-looking gardens are those with lots of shrubs and trees; similarly in the park, the greener areas are under trees. Moral, save water by planting; book I’m reading on saving the Australian landscape, says it’s plants that will save the planet. It certainly seems to need saving, looking at Australian news of fires burning up Victoria, while BBC news tells of storms washing away south coast of home (moral for England, planting also helps with flooding).

More locally, now the rain has stopped, trees are a godsend if you’re walking down the street – you need their shade! There are some fantastic trees around here, huge old fig trees (unfortunately not the edible ones), eucalyptus and paper-barks, and London plane. In fact, throughout the city there are enormous trees lining the roads and filling the parks; they’re so important to provide shelter from the sun, and to allow other plants (and us) to thrive under them. Interesting balance of health and safety matters – such huge old trees might be felled at home because of the chance a branch might fall, or because their roots make the pavements a bit uneven.

The eucalypts are especially beautiful, I think – we’ve got one right outside the house, can see it through strange porthole window. I love its tall white trunk with branches that in themselves have the shape of a tree. There are several hundred species, mostly unique to Australia and evolved to put up with this climate. How bizarre that I’ve recently planted one at home where it is probably now drowning.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 16.1.2014: Wonderful Winter Shrubs

As promised, witch hazel is out, but taking me completely by surprise; only a few days ago, the buds were tightly closed, then wandering down garden two days ago suddenly saw it’s covered in orangey curly fronds! Looked more closely and the petals are really amazing – look so much like long curls of orange peel that you might find in a good marmalade, a real “Marmalade Moment”, (remember village show 2011?) though actually taking photos of them show the colour to be elegant stripes of coral and orange. And really close up, can also see wonderful maroon calyx.

Witch hazel is one of the many winter-flowering shrubs that have the most gorgeous scent; another is the honeysuckle, aptly-named Lonicera fragrantissima, one of which grows right next to the backdoor so I get a good sniff whenever I go out. Also get a dose of virtue rewarded – planting that works, unlike the Christmas box, Sarcococca, that’s also supposed to be near the door or path – problem is, it’s only a foot or so high so you have to kneel down in mud to smell it. The honeysuckle is also looking lovely with its white flowers on bare twigs looking like a fall of snow.

Viburnum bodnantense is another scented beauty; it’s a tall elegant shrub, similarly flowering on long bare branches. It’s also good-looking in leaf, which perhaps the honeysuckle isn’t.
Then there’s winter jasmine, a plant I would never be without; it has such cheerful yellow flowers on long arching twigs that are perfect for cutting – I’m not much of a flower-arranger but I love using winter jasmine with variegated foliage for Christmas table decorations, and now in January it’s looking good with a single winter iris. These are all wonderful plants that can transform winter days.

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Caroline’s Garden Diaries 31.12.2013: Coming Full Circle

New Year’s Eve, and here I am again with a bud of Iris unguicularis opening in a vase, and admiring pots of Primula malacoides, plants that began this diary at the start of the year. Garden’s come full circle. Not surprising on a planet that has goes a full circle round the sun, that’s what a year is.

But it’s not exactly the same as last year, earth and moon wobble around on cycles of their own, sun spots change the weather, time passes, things happen. On a miniscule human scale of one person growing some seed, the Fairy Primroses are different this year – tried different seed company, American, to see if colour range is better; no, it’s not and unusually for American things, plants are smaller, while those from Chiltern Seeds are very healthy plants, many of them a lovely lavender colour.

Would be normal to sum up the year at this point, part of clearing out the old, but don’t really feel like it; summings up are often “highlights” and “10 top things” and those doesn’t capture my sense of what gardening is about. Could follow Helen Yemm’s garden piece in the newspaper that talks of things to do next year; had a couple of thoughts like that, especially as the Chiltern Seed catalogue has just arrived with message to “grow something new from seed” – maybe a Ginkgo? Now that’s an idea for 2014, I’d love to see baby leaves of oldest known flowering plant.

No, my bigger picture for the year is the wonder and glory of the changing seasons, through cold dry spring, cold early summer, to warm long days of later summer, beautiful mild autumn, and now windy wet winter. Shoots have pushed up, leaves unfurled, buds have opened, flowers delighted, leaves went fiery colours and fell, now there’s seed-heads and bare twigs against the sky. We’ve been round the sun – what a journey we had.

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