And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside


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Ten Great Gardening Gifts under £15

I’m afraid my robust stance on what NOT to get gardeners has not softened in the intervening two years.  If anything, I have become more set in my ways.  Here is a list of stocking fillers, all of them under fifteen quid, that any keen gardener would be very pleased to get.

  1. Jumbo kneeler

    Yes, those ads in the back of Sunday supplements are accurate: garden kneelers are useful.  No, not those leather/chintz/Harris tweed covered ones, aspirational and pretty though they be. They all share the same fault: way too small, with only space for your knees side by side. If there’s something just out of reach, you have to get to your feet, move the kneeler 20cm and then get back down again, which over the course of a even a few minute’s gardening becomes irritating (even for those less prone to irritation than myself). I wound up never using mine, unless it was really cold and wet underknee. Then, clearing out my father’s toolshed earlier this year, I came across a giant, garishly coloured slab of foam: a vastly outsized kneeler. I commandeered it, brought it back with me to Scotland and have used it almost every day since. The kneeler I suggest you buy is even larger than my own, at a wildly generous 98cm by 39cm, and is truly a brilliant present for any gardener.  Its only downside is that it won’t actually fit in the stocking.At £10.95 from Harrod Horticultural

  2. Blade sharpening kit

    This duo from Darlac is brilliant. I have a similar little steel that I have to hand – so useful for a mid pruning-session sharpen of the secateurs.  And if you wanted to bowl your recipient over with your thoughtfulness, you could bung in a can of WD40, a couple of Brillo pads and possibly even a rag. Pop the lot in a shoebox and that’ll keep your gardener happily occupied through the bleak January days, productively sharpening every blade in the shed in keen anticipation of the coming spring.At £12.99 from Two Wests & Elliott
  3. Plant rings

    These little plastic coated wire rings are incredibly useful. I never throw them away, they last forever, and you can use them again and again.  I always have a few in my pocket for when I notice that something has flopped away from its support or the twine has broken – or the plant has grown and the point at which it needs attached has changed – and I don’t want to go back to the shed and get the full works. I use them to to secure tomato and cucumber plants to bamboo canes, to train the young branches of trees, to secure delphinium spikes onto canes, to train my climbers to their wires. I realise that as presents go they lack a certain wow factor, but you can’t have everything.At £1.99 from Kingfisher, available from all garden centres and Amazon
  4. Proper gardening gloves

    Be suspicious of gardening gloves that look pretty. A gardening glove should have a purpose: it is either a leathery gauntlet to protect your hands from being scratched by thorns, irritated by sap or burnt by fire; or designed to keep soil particles away from your skin and nails. I do not subscribe to the view that true gardeners love to feel the soil with their bare hands. When I see presenters on Gardeners World plunging their ungloved hands into the earth I physically shudder at the memory of running microscopically roughened hands over fabric and the unpleasant snagging sensation that ensues. So for standard garden work use these from Showa, and for anything requiring greater precision use these medical latex or vinyl ones. As well as also coming in very useful for kitchen use when chillis need chopped, you can snap them at the wrists as you put them on and waggle your eyebrows suggestively. That may be just in our household though.At £3.10 a pair from Just Work Gloves and others
    From £3.60 for a box of 100 gloves from Just Gloves
  5. Decent hand scrub

    My father, who started out as an engineering apprentice, swore by Swarfega, and always had a pot or ten about the house. I swear by Jo Malone’s Geranium and Walnut Scrub, but let’s face it, no way is that one going to meet the £15 criterion of this list. However, a genuinely good alternative that does is the Gardener’s Hand Scrub from Nutscene (also containing geranium), which is a delight to use and smells lovely.  Don’t wet your hands first: all three scrubs work (and feel) best when applied to dry hands, slowly massaged into the palms, backs of hands and fingers, then rinsed off with tepid water. Nutscene makes an equally good accompanying hand cream – I’m quite picky about products (but you already knew that) and I rate it.From £7.63 a 500ml pot, from Amazon
    At £40 for 200g from Jo Malone
    At £8.99 for 150ml from Nutscene
  6. Seed Voucher

    That thing about sitting by the fire when it’s lashing down outside, poring over seed catalogues? Never happened to me, I do my seed salivating in the evenings in front of my computer, but it doesn’t diminish the joy in knowing you have a voucher with an interesting seed company and you get to choose whatever you like. Free seeds, hurrah! You could get six or seven packets for a £15 voucher, and the firm will send you their list or catalogue too if you like. You cannot go wrong with a voucher from any of the following:Chiltern Seeds
    Special Plants
    Franchi Seeds of Italy
    Real Seeds
  7. Thermometers

    I’m going to recommend two types of garden thermometer, both of which I use (indeed I have two of each type and can always use more). Digital examples of both do exist, but I haven’t yet tried them so I can’t comment firsthand. The first type is a straightforward soil thermometer, robust and with a bright red ball on the top which means that when you lose it under the rush of spring growth, come autumn you stand a good chance of finding it again. Thanks entirely to this attribute, I’ve had my current one for over 15 years and three gardens.
    The second type is a minimum/maximum temperature recorder. I have one in my polytunnel and one outside so that I can nerdily compare the difference. Even more nerdily, I then record the temperatures in my garden notebook (see next item on the list).At £12.99  and £14.99 respectively, both from Two Wests & Elliott
  8. Garden Notebook

    See previous point. Any committed gardener needs a notebook, for all sorts of valid and not at all nerdish reasons. I jot down what I sowed and when, garden ideas, to do lists, plant wish lists and planting combination ideas. It is a calamity to visit another garden without a notebook, because the back of a scrap of paper jottings you make will inevitably be lost or put through the wash. My favourites are medium-sized lined hardback notebooks that stay in the polytunnel or shed, and smaller unlined ones that can be slipped into a pocket when out visiting.  Both from Moleskine.
    *** I am positively giddy with excitement having just learnt that for an additional £5 you can have your notebook personalised with your name or the name of your garden. “Gray House Garden. 2017” Deep breaths.***From £10.95 from Moleskine
  9. Root trainers

    These are the bee’s knees for sowing individual medium sized seeds like sweet peas or sweetcorn (broad beans are just a tad too large), or for propagating cuttings. As well as encouraging excellent root development, you can open up the sleeve without disturbing the roots to see how things are doing. After a number of uses the plastic sleeves do start to rip, but I’ve kept mine going for years.At £10.95 (currently £6.99, you could get two sets!) by Haxnicks from Amazon
  10. Pot of indoor bulbs

    Yes yes, I know I should have ordered my bulbs for forcing in September when I did my annual tulip order, but I was so profligate with the tulips and lilies that I had to cut something, and that’s what went. And now I am forced to buy my hyacinths and amaryllis in pots, already in growth (and I’m noticing that once you allow for the pot and the time, there’s not that much in it, pricewise). There is something so utterly cheering for the gardener about spring bulbs, tangible proof that spring and summer will come again. Any supermarket will have those baskets of three hyacinths – white or blue please, not pink, and none of your sparkly ‘decorations’ thank you very much – but M&S are doing a particularly charming range of muscari in little milk jugs which I think must be instore only, because I can’t find them online. Three of those would be just dandy.

Whatever you choose to get the gardener in your life, I wish you and them a very happy Christmas and a lovely start to the eagerly awaited new year. Come on 2017!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pinheads and Dinnerplates

Hardy cyclamen are wonderful plants, quite unlike their trashy indoor cousins.

I have a particular weakness for scent, autumn colour and plants with winter interest, and although unscented the ivy-leaved (or Neapolitan) cyclamen excels in the latter two categories, sending up its charming pink recurved flowers in the autumn, and most obligingly holding on to its heart shaped leaves, intricately marked with silver, over the winter months, shedding them over the summer when their absence goes unnoticed in the midst of all the other star horticultural performances.

cyclamen in planter

I really should investigate Cyclamen coum, which flowers from December to March and would take over nicely from the September to November flowering of C. hederifolium, but I have read that if planted together C. coum will in time (which is relative – centuries, probably) come to dominate, so I will have to wait to find a source and a good spot.  However their circular leaves are unmarked and nowhere near as interesting.

The greatest downside of C. hederifolium, if one wants a swathe of them (and who would not?), is their cost.  Even my first choice of bulb supplier, Peter Nyssen, was charging over £1 per tuber.  At this point, I turned my beady and acquisitive eye towards my unsuspecting mother.  My mother is not a gardener but she is hugely generous of spirit and has a lovely garden, blessed with great drifts of hellebores and, I remembered covetously, hardy cyclamen.

When we were building the house and lived for almost five years in rented accommodation with a pocket handkerchief of a garden, she made me up a horticultural care parcel containing plants from her garden which I arranged together in a planter and which lifted my frustrated gardening spirits no end.  (In the preceding sentence I use the term  ‘made me up’ as a euphemism for ‘allowed me to plunder her garden during one of my visits, digging up what I wanted, and leaving it for her to wrap in damp newspaper and post them all up to me in a cardboard box’.) There were a number of cyclamen tubers in this planter, and I had noticed that the flowers had set seed – those seedpods on curious little coiled springs – and that many had germinated into seedlings, a year or so old.  I resolved to turn out the planter, carefully, and prick out the seedlings into a tray of jiffy modules – why, I would soon have hundreds of hardy cyclamen.  Pricking out seedlings is soothing pastime, providing one sets up the bench or table to avoid being hunched over and getting a crick in the neck or between the shoulder blades, and I spent a restful and virtuous sunny October afternoon doing just that.

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Pleased though I was with my labours, I recognised that it would be many years before the pinhead sized tubers produced any flowers, so I turned once more to my mother and asked her, with what I hoped was engaging directness, whether she would dig up some more tubers and send me them (or ‘instruct Tim who comes on Wednesdays to dig up etc’). Again she obliged, and Parcelforce duly delivered two boxes filled with magnificent tubers, some bigger than my hand (see photo below).  I have no idea how old they are, and while the literature relates how they can grow to the size of dinner plates, I have found nothing that gives a timescale for this development. Readers, if you can shed some light, I would be delighted to hear from you.

IMG_6058

The tubers themselves are odd, unpromising things, with hardly any roots, and it is difficult to imagine them ‘throwing up hundreds of flowers’ per tuber, as the books would have them do.  Bought dormant from bulb suppliers, many have no roots at all and it is often difficult to know which way up to plant them.  Planting any bulb, I think, is an act of faith, but cyclamen require belief of Orpheus-like proportions.

Out of curiosity, I also ordered some tubers from Peter Nyssen to compare, and a plant from Crocus, and then succumbed to buying some more tubers when I was in Dobbies (despite the recent mis-labeled anemone experience), to see which would  give me the best results for my time, effort and money.  Contenders in my unofficial and woefully unscientific hardy cyclamen trial are:

1) Five dormant tubers from Peter Nyssen (photo below left) – £6.50

2) Five dormant tubers from Dobbies garden centre (photo below right) – under £10

Nyssen cyclamen tubers     Cyclamen tubers Dobbies Taylors

3) Two boxes of tubers from my mother’s garden, semi-dormant (i.e. freshly dug up and showing some signs of root or leaf growth) – free, but clearly not everyone has access to such cyclamenic munificence

4) 300+ seedlings – free, ditto

5) A plant in a 9cm pot from Crocus (photo below) – £2.99

crocus cyclamen small

The plant (by its very definition in a non-dormant state) from Crocus was the real surprise, with that little 2cm tuber throwing up dozens of leaves and all those fine root hairs.  If the dormant tubers lumber into life with anything near this fecundity I shall have veritable carpets of cyclamen, I’m just finding it incredibly hard to believe this with any conviction. Having planted them this winter – a bit shriveled and apparently dessicated, with their crowns just below the surface of the soil and hopefully the right way up – I am not sure when I should expect signs of life, especially since winter is normally their non-dormant season.  Might I have to wait until September to see the first leaves? I just know I will not be able to resist digging one of them up to check whether root development is actually happening, and I hope this doubter’s impatience will not irretrievably damage the plant*.

I went to check on the tubers from my mother that I planted in the beds under the pleached limes, only to find to my annoyance that their stems have been neatly severed, and a few leaves left on top of the mulch.  The culprits are our resident rabbits, and I will position some cloches over the cyclamen while I hone my plans for a multi-pronged attack on the blasted creatures.

I will update this post with progress on the plants over the course of the year.  Yes, you have heard me say that before, but remember this is still a very young blog.  You may or may not have noticed that I have resorted to copying and pasting comments under my WordPress posts that dear and valued readers have put on my Facebook page.  I have been wondering what I could do to attract more comments, suggestions and questions to these posts – I would love to get some dialogue going. Is it because WordPress requires some horrid sign in process?  Clearly, if this is the case then you are hardly likely to sign in in order to tell me so.  If you prefer, you could tweet me @AndTheGarden?  Perhaps this too is merely a matter of time, and comments will emerge in the natural order of things. Or, for that matter, not.

 

* Should I ever be in the privileged position to name a new species of cyclamen, I shall call it Cyclamen eurydice, and take my chances at being smacked in the face for being such a smart arse.


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The Tale of the Bathroom Window

Listed on our very first brief, when the design of the house was still just a twinkle in the architect’s eye (and, crucially, before we had settled on a predominantly single storey design) was the item ‘bath window at eye-level’.  Building one’s own house gives one the opportunity to incorporate quirky and bespoke elements, and these rarely fail to deliver lasting delight.  Remind me to tell you about our storm door one of these days, and how our cold larder off the back kitchen is actually outside the envelope of house insulation.  I digress.

I must have been inspired by something like this (Karen Cilento’s photo of Paul Raff Studio’s Cascade House in Toronto as featured in Arch Daily:

Cascade House / Paul Raff Studio

I imagined soaking in the bath after a long and productive day spent working in the garden, letting my gaze roam out over the swaying grasses and structural planting, and yes, maybe even sipping a glass of something chilled while I basked.  How indulgent, how civilized to be able to enjoy the fruits of my labour from my bath.  And so it came to be.

The horizontal bath window can be seen at the far left of the drawing in the blog banner, above, and, in the photo below, seen from the back garden (the large glass window & door to the left of it is the bedroom).

House seen from back garden

All through the build I cherished the thought of this little idiosyncrasy, not pausing to identify that a key feature of the bathrooms of my inspiration was that they were not on the ground floor.  I remained blithely unconscious of the implications of this fact and then one happy day we moved in.

View from bath - day

And it was great.  During the day, that is.  And also providing no one was outside in the garden while I was in the bathroom.  At night, as I daresay even the meanest intelligence will have by now deduced, it was a different story.

View from bath - night

Now I don’t care how sensible or how rational you are, how little you are troubled by silly thoughts: I defy you or anyone else not to lower themselves naked into a bath in these circumstances without wondering whether there is a prowler somewhere in the garden, getting an eyeful. Frankly, it cast a bit of a pall over the whole bath-time ritual, and I only really relaxed once the glass had steamed up.  A frosted film applied to the glass was clearly the answer, but that would then defeat the purpose of me being able to look out at the garden, and we might as well have done without the blasted window (and the extra cost of the wretched thing) in the first place.

So I mulled things over (uneasily, from the bath, firmly telling myself to buck up and that it was highly unlikely for there to be a Susannah and the Elders situation occurring, but…), and then last week I stumbled across a firm that supplies frosted glass film with a transparent pattern on it.  And not just any old pattern, but a transparent pattern of plants.  There was even a choice of designs.  And while the purist in me was rather holding out for Pennisetum or Briza seed heads, I settled happily for wheat.

Applying frosted film to bath window  Frosted film seen from exterior

It was straightforward to apply, looks great from the outside, and because my head is level with the base of the window I can see through the transparent ‘blades of grass’ bit of the pattern, right out into the garden.  When the low winter sunlight streams through the window, it casts delightful clear shadows.

Frosted film - application complete

Thwarted, the prowlers will have to move on to pastures new, and I can enter the bathroom while my son is playing football outside with his friends without worrying that I might inadvertently scar them for life.

I am thoroughly pleased with myself and have hardly left the bath since.


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Choosing a Tree, part One

There are two main types of plant-buying gardener: those who buy what is in front of them (often in flower) and then plan where to put it; and those who first plan what they want and then source it.  No gardener ever entirely overcomes the first behaviour, it’s just that the impulses tend to be for more unusual plants in special nurseries – or late night online temptation.

The available garden space that most people have does tend to limit impulse buying to shrubs and herbaceous plants – it is a foolish gardener, or one with a very large garden, who buys a Wellingtonia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, on a whim.  I am that gardener.  I then compounded the error by dithering over where exactly in our 10 acres to put it and temporarily heeled it in quite close to the drive.  When we sold the house ten years later, it was still in its temporary position, only it had grown considerably.  I am struggling to phrase how relieved I felt that the wretched thing was now someone else’s problem without appearing utterly craven, and failing.

   

Sequoiadendron giganteum; Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’

I do learn from my mistakes and have not repeated that one, unless you count the Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ bought as soon as I clapped eyes on it in the excellent Kirkdale nursery in Aberdeenshire, but I placed it successfully, so I don’t.  And an unnamed, as yet unidentified tree found (slightly root-bound) in a corner of the Dundee Botanic Garden plant shop that had such blazing pink and magenta autumn colour that I had to have it, no matter that none of the available gardeners (or for that matter, visiting gardening friends) knew what it was.  It will probably turn out to be something ploddingly ordinary that is usually a shrub but that has been trained as a standard, and this denouement will almost certainly take place during a visit from gardeners I had been hoping to impress.

In his thoughtful and inspiring account of planting his former London garden, ‘Home Ground: a sanctuary in the city‘ (I urge anyone planning a garden to read this exquisitely written and photographed book), Dan Pearson describes his deliberations in choosing a tree for a prominent place.  I particularly appreciated following his thought process as he debated the merits of first one species then another:  even more so, his sharing of the fact that the first two he planted were not quite right and were subsequently moved.  Too often, gardening authors only divulge the end result, which makes them appear very knowledgeable and decisive, but which can make the novice despair of ever commanding such a unerring grasp of plant possibilities.

Because they take a while to reach a good size, and you will be looking at it for many many years, if you are going to plant a tree both you and it deserve your spending a bit of time choosing what sort.  Why plant any old thing when you could plant something that will enchant you year after year, whose seasons you can anticipate with delight, and which by observing it through the cycles of the years will enrich your life?

If you don’t know where to start, have a think about what pleases you in a tree – be inspired by childhood memories, great holidays, gardens visited, neighbourhood trees that you always notice, paintings and photographs.  (Here is where I admit to Google Image searches, and an unhealthy Pinterest addiction.).  Go and visit some local gardens, take your phone and photograph the trees you like best.  Make a note of what you don’t like, too, as it is very useful in narrowing down the endless choices.  Many books have been written on the subject (and please do add your suggestions – about books or trees – to the comments section, it would be lovely to hear from you.)

While we are discussing tree choices I feel I must take a swipe at the many excellent conservation organisations who routinely distribute free native tree saplings.  While a spreading oak in the right setting feeds both wildlife and the soul, most of us simply do not have large enough gardens.  This applies to most of the other native species too, and smaller native trees such as Sorbus, the rowans, are rarely as colourful as their ornamental cousins.  I would make (and have in my garden made) an exception for both silver and downy birch, Betula pendula and B. pubescens:  although the bark of the natives is not as striking as many exotic species or cultivars, the delicacy of the leaf in movement is unparalleled.   And they cast little shade so you can grow lots of things underneath them.  And…  excuses, excuses.

birch shadow small

Shadows of Betula pendula on the white rendered wall of the house

The important thing is to justify your choice of tree because you love one or more of its characteristics.  Remember: at this stage you are merely gathering information and inspiration, not worrying overmuch about practicalities.  The more trees on your list, the better.  As you get your eye in, you will find you start to recognise certain trees, and with this comes a great satisfaction.  The next stage is to look at your site with a gimlet eye to whittle down the list, and we’ll do that in the next post.


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Welcome to the parti

“A parti is the central idea or concept of a building”
no. 15 of 101 Things I learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

In almost every design decision I make in this garden, and certainly all those close to the house, I submit myself to a number of house-imposed constraints.   I want the garden to reinforce the design integrity of the house even more than I yearn to plant – finally – all the species, combinations, arrangements and rarities on my horticultural dream list.  There is plenty of space further down the garden to indulge in that sort of thing.

Building our own house was never an all-consuming passion.  We couldn’t find what we wanted to buy, the opportunity to buy a plot of land in the place we wanted came up, and one thing led to another.  My husband’s tastes diverge from my own in so many ways, namely most music, films and books, that it was a surprise to find that we shared the same view on what style of house we should build.  We both felt, first instinctively and then with growing conviction, that if we were to build a house in the first part of the 21st C, it should look both of its place and time.  We were fortunate to work with a phenomenally good Scottish architectural practice, Gareth Hoskins Architects, and together we embarked on a fascinating journey of site – and client – analysis; and responses to the constraints of brief, site and budget (with considerably more success for the first two).

Although large at just over 3/4 acre, the plot of land is long and relatively narrow:  21m wide and 150m long, flat along its length and oriented roughly N/S with the road access from the south.

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Our architects developed a number of options.  The chosen design made a virtue of the length of the site by having a central line run from the front garden straight through the house and out into the back garden, with the boxes of living spaces arranged on either side of this line.  In architect-speak: a series of differently-sized pavilions arranged in relation to a central datum*.

The crucial thing to understand is that everything – EVERYTHING – is planned.  Nothing is random, unthought, or by default.  All the lines in the design, from the siting of the house relative to its neighbours, to the height and position of every wall, window and door, is the way it is for a reason.  A reason debated by an office-load of talented, highly trained people who then convince the client to trust them even though this way of doing things will – who knew? – cost a bit more.

And they are right.  Because what you wind up with** has a purity, an integrity, a simplicity and beauty of design that makes your heart sing.  We have lived in this house, still slightly unfinished (don’t ask), since November 2013 and every single day I am delighted anew by its thoughtful design, a design that actually helps us live better.  You can understand how if I’m going to put a pergola over the outside dining table, I’ll want to make damn sure the posts are in the right places.

 

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The above image shows the house and garage pretty much as they have been built (minus the building at the far end of the garden, my study-to-be), but the garden is shown as I vaguely envisaged it back in 2012, and the design has changed somewhat, as designs do.

From a gardener’s perspective, it had formerly been agricultural pasture (an historical anomaly since we are in town), and the soil is a rich loam, just on the acid side of neutral pH, with some small pockets of waterlogging due – I think – to haphazard undulations in the underlying bedrock.  The garden is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds (the big blue arrow in the first drawing is wrong, showing the wind coming from the east) by a 2m+ high beech edge that runs along its 150m length, and winter temperatures rarely fall below -10 degrees C, and even then only for a week or so a year.  Being on the east coast, we have under a third of the annual rainfall of the west coast (800mm vs 3000mm).

And there you have it.  This is why in future posts I will bang on about features in the garden aligning to the point of OCD.

Front door

The datum – here expressed in grey slate – runs through the centre of the dwelling and out into the exterior space beyond. Get me.

 

* I now use the term ‘datum’ spontaneously in casual conversation, to the bafflement and intense irritation of my friends.  I’m not going to be able to avoid using it in this blog.  Pernicious architects.

** That and debt, you also wind up with more debt than you intended.