The lazy spring garden

I had a strange realisation about the garden earlier this month – it is the usual time of year when I remark with apparent surprise how the garden is suddenly green and blooming (as if it should be a surprise that spring happens! I always have to remember Larkin said it best: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’).


However, there was something different this year – I was doing my usual pruning back and deadheading and digging up of dandelions and sycamore seedlings, but usually there are also some gaps to fill in, new plants to buy, things on my wish list to be added in here and there.

This year, though – no gaps! For the first time, plants I put in one or more year ago and didn’t necessarily expect to appear, have popped back up and are thriving.


On the raised bed, poppies from the plant stall at the school fair two years ago are sprouting again, a sedum my mum put in as a tiny seedling is now enormous, and my white thrift is thriving too. 

Even the nigella seeds I scattered last year, assuming I’d only get one year’s flowering from, are back.


The woodland garden at the back is also doing well, too, with bugle, periwinkle and lungwort, which I used to have to water all the time and coax back into life every time they drooped, spreading to cover the bare soil, and the one recent new purchase I allowed myself, a couple of hellebores, also settling in nicely.

It is nice not to have to do too much beyond basic maintenance and weeding – nice to see plants which used to struggle now taking care of themselves – and it’s certainly good not to be spending so much money on plants (though I do always hunt out the bargains and half price tables!). It is especially nice to look out over the raised bed and see a continual wave of colour, although I know once the bluebells are over there will be big gaps.


The silver birch tree, now in for a whole year, is also looking good, and with all the leaves out, we have a big improvement in terms of our privacy – looking out from the kitchen window, I can only just see the top roof of the house opposite, not their windows at all.


The question is, where does this leave me? I have two big beds I’ve worked very hard to fill, and now with our fourth summer in the house, they seem to be mature. I do still have two border beds with lots of shrubs, some very overgrown and prickly, and a lot of undergrowth spreading like lemon balm – none of it exactly weeds, but all a bit dull and samey. 

That is probably the next big task to contemplate, but for now, I’m going to enjoy what’s been done so far.


Plus I have a couple of junior gardeners to help me out – they are busy planting nasturtiums in this picture – and the poor old lawn which has become so lush and green, is going to be sacrificed for the new big toy, a trampoline.

April showers lead to May & June…showers.

I have been listening to rain pounding very pleasingly on our skylight windows – pleasing as long as they don’t start to let water IN, which they aren’t at the moment, luckily. The act of recalling summer camping holidays and the sound of rain on canvas, without actually having to get wet – an instant hit of nostalgia with no tent-based discomfort.

There has been no end to the rain these past few weeks, it seems, but I can’t bring myself to complain. It has been (mostly) warm and it has been occasionally sunny in between the downpours and thunderstorms, so the garden has responded eagerly and put on its best early summer showing I can remember yet.
Partly I have been delighted by some of the plants I picked up cheap as chips at a local school fair last year – some of them were planted as tiny seedlings last July, so it has taken almost a full year for them to come into bloom, but it was worth the wait.


These amazing poppies, for instance – they are huge compared to typical field poppies, and whilst bright bold scarlet wouldn’t usually be my colour of choice, I find that I love them.

There is also this enormous triffid plant which came from the school fair – no idea what it is, but it grows bigger & bigger by the day.

Both the poppies and triffid-plant are in the raised bed which is finally looking like someone has planted it in a proper planned way (so far from the truth!) – once all the finished bluebells were pulled up, the other plants all immediately seemed to creep into the bare patches until there was hardly any soil left visible (bar 1 or 2 problem patches). Up close there are plenty of flaws, and some plants I’d rather not have there at all, but overall, by some miracle, it works.


The empty spaces in my shady woodland garden under the shrubbery are also finally filling up – foxgloves and periwinkle both steadily expanding, and I have added a new Pulmonaria with lovely pale leaves (and pale creamy flowers rather than the usual pink and blue, when they finally come) and a Dicentra. There are a few other shade-loving plants I still want to find – would love to have some comfrey to fill in the bare spaces at the back as I know it spreads very easily – it self-seeded in my old garden but I’ve not seen it in any garden centres and I suspect most would see it as a weed!

Apart from all the rain, there has been one other big challenge keeping me out of the garden, in the shape of a toddler. She is not quite walking yet, but can put on some serious speed when crawling, and scramble up onto flower beds and precarious ledges. 

If my back turns for an instant she is usually cramming dirt into her mouth or pulling up plants – it makes for rather slow progress if I’m trying to do any gardening, or even trying to sit with a cup of tea. 


Our new garden bench doesn’t get much use as a quiet place for tea and contemplation, more for scrambling and balancing tricks. Oh well, one day I will get to sit there undisturbed, I guess.

The one positive to come out of this rather demanding toddler phase is that I’ve taken to doing a lot of gardening in the evenings – the perfect time to be out there when the days are so long, enough time to stop and look at what actually needs doing rather than just hacking away for 5 minutes here and there – and of course in the evening light and at sunset I can stop and appreciate how nice it’s all looking. 


It’s now the longest day, so nights will start drawing in again (boo!) and it’s currently raining cats and dogs AGAIN, but at least everything looks green and lush and I don’t have to worry about the water butt running dry this year. Silver linings, eh?

The Battle of the Bluebells

You can keep your Wars of the Roses, it’s all been about the battle of the bluebells here. 

I’ve seen plenty of garden bluebells everywhere (more on them, later), but it seems like years since I’d seen proper swathes of woodland bluebells and I longed for them – in spite of the rather muddy time we’d had seeing snowdrops, I didn’t want to miss out on bluebells this year.

So, on an unexpectedly warm day we set off to Emmetts Garden in Kent, described as one of the best places to see bluebells locally. It is a gorgeous spot on the downs – the description of a ‘hillside garden’ doesn’t do it justice, more of a rolling downland meadow and woodland glade which just happens to have a formal garden attached to it too.

We wandered through the shrubberies and past empty rose gardens and rockeries that were clearly not at their best yet – all this the preamble to the main event. 

The bluebell woods were on the far side of the hill, below the tea room and picnic area, and approaching them from above, the full glory wasn’t immediately apparent, then we rounded a corner and finally got the full intensity of blueness I’d been craving. 


Knowing that blue is generally thought to be a calming colour, I wondered if that was why people love bluebell woods so much – a small patch of bluebells in a garden or a roadside may be pleasing, but the full visual effect of blue stretching as far as the eye can see must have a positive effect on the brain, surely? 


The only place I can remember which delivers that same intensity of blueness was the Sanctuary of Dom Bosco, an amazing church in Brasilia with blue stained glass floor to ceiling – a rather exotic comparison, I’ll grant you, but if you like blue as much as I like blue, well, you’d like it there, trust me.

The woods were not only full of blue, though: starry little wood anemone peeped through the bluebells, and here and there we spotted white bluebells, which I’d never seen before – 


The bluebell walk finished at a viewpoint where you could suddenly, out of nowhere, see for miles – here we sat down, with the sun on our faces, and soaked it all in. 

There was a longer trail from that point down into the woods below, and the temptation to just keep walking on and on into the trees was very strong, but on the other hand, if we went back to the cafe we could have tea and cake.


When we got home, I went out to the garden to photograph my own bluebells, and here you can really see the difference between the British (above) and Spanish (below) varieties.


The British flower is a much deeper blue, and bends over daintily – and what the picture can’t capture (and I had quite forgotten) is the heady, intense smell of them. 

The Spanish garden variety are much paler, with more individual florets on the upright flower stalk, and have no scent. In the battle of the bluebells, there’s no comparison, is there, really? Nothing beats that lovely, deep, rich blue, and I’m so glad I had the chance to see it this year.

A couple of weeks on, our garden bluebells are all over, and tonight I had the joyless task of (yet again) pulling up every single one before they become brown mush. 

If I can face it, next week’s task is to dig out as many bulbs as I can to clear some space for new plants, but I know the Spanish bluebells will march on, and maybe increase their territory next year. I will just have to keep going back to the woods to get my fix of the real thing, then.

Let it snow, let it sleet, let it hail…

This weekend, it felt like a door opened just a crack and we got a tiny glimpse of Spring, what a real spring day feels like. I actually sat out in the sunshine for two consecutive days. I can’t think when that last happened!

Up until Saturday, the week had delivered snow and sleet on Tuesday, hail on Wednesday and thunder and lightning too, then more hail on Friday. And yet, thanks in part to all the rain (and the lack of really cold weather, despite the snow flurries), Spring marches on – the leaves are out, flowers are blooming, we’ve seen birds gathering nesting material. It just hasn’t felt like Spring up until now.

On one of the sunny early April days which was much colder and windier than it ought to have been, I had a chance to revisit one of my favourite local open gardens. The site is on one of the loveliest roads in Herne Hill, in fact the very one I walked up many years ago to visit the Velodrome for the first time – and thought to myself ‘some day I’d like to live round here’. 

Well, I never made it as far as moving to Herne Hill, but I’m close enough, and it is certainly a pleasure to be able to return to this particular garden. 


It has a fantastic wild area at the bottom – great inspiration for how my birch tree might look in a few years, if I can persuade anything to grow under it!


And a very palatial looking bug hotel, with child beside it for scale.  This puts me to shame as I have made no attempt to create a bug hotel at home and there is no excuse, I’m sure I can find some way of cobbling one together.


In terms of plant inspiration I was spoilt for choice – gorgeous Yellow Archangel (top) with its deceptively nettle-like leaves, but so much more glamorous than the ordinary varieties of dead-nettle, the dainty fritillaries (bottom) which are probably far too delicate to survive in my garden right now, and in the middle, something I have discovered the name of but promptly forgotten: forget-me-not flowers but with the lovely heart-shaped leaves, very striking and definitely a plant that’s going on my list for the shady garden patch. (They have it in the local garden centre, so at some point I will buy some and hopefully remember the name….).


The garden also has lovely sculptural features – box balls next to a bird bath on a plinth, a rusty wire mesh fox (does it keep away the real ones I wonder?) and stone birds next to, um, a giant egg. 

I also really liked the use of wood and gravel here – another idea I’ve been mulling over is whether to put more gravel around some of my more drought-ridden areas, to try and keep weeds down and help disguise some of the bare patches of soil that plague me.

I have been keeping an eye out for other pretty things, too, and it is possible, if you look only at the pictures taken on nice sunny days, to imagine we really have had a spring after all. 

We had a sunny (but briskly cold) afternoon at the Horniman museum, and I was keen to see how their formal beds had been planted this year – and I wasn’t disappointed! 

The whole series of beds had been planted with pink, blue AND white forget-me-nots (White ones! Who knew?), with dark burgundy tulips dotted like sentinels throughout. 

The effect was charming and haphazard up close, but a seriously spectacular view when you look down the full length of the beds – patchwork of flowers so dense you could hardly see a bare space. And whilst tulips have never been a real favourite of mine, here they add some height and drama to an otherwise very pretty, delicate forget-me-not patchwork.

If the good weather is here to stay for a while, I will keep my eyes peeled for more inspiration – in the mean time, this lot have given me plenty of ideas to be going on with!

A walk around…Helmingham Hall

As promised in the last blog, there was one more place we visited in Suffolk which deserved a blog entry all of its own – a garden so stunning I am still not quite sure it was real.

Just a few miles from where we were staying is Helmingham Hall. The house itself is an impressive moated Elizabethan pile, but is not open to visitors – in any case, the Chelsea-medal winning gardens are what people (by people, meaning ‘me’) come to see. 

  
You approach the main garden down an avenue of fruit trees, and then wind through a wild flower meadow and woodland area before crossing a bridge into the walled garden – all the while getting tantalising glimpses, Secret Garden-style, of the treasures within. 

  
It was well worth the wait to see what was inside….

   
   
What seemed like miles and miles of borders, all fully packed from front to back with flowers in bloom. Not a weed in sight, not a plant out of place, everything so tightly packed you could barely see a patch of soil.

The amount of effort that goes into making gardens like this, I can scarcely imagine. The planning required to get the right heights of plants in the right places, the seasonal planting, the colour schemes, just seems exhausting to me – who can’t even keep one raised bed consistently planted and looking anything other than patchy and shambolic!

Of course this garden has its peaks and troughs too – the wild flower meadow was past its best when we saw it, and the sweet peas were all but done, but we saw the ‘late summer’ borders just coming to their peak.

  
This border particularly impressed me with its composition – the contrast of light and dark foliage, the ivy providing a uniform backdrop to the sharp oranges and yellows of the flowers – but all offset by the graceful verbena providing height and a restful purple hint after all that citrus.

Now, I’d never think of planting a bed like this. I don’t know my shrubs well enough to know what background foliage to put in, I prefer blues and purples and pinks so I avoid yellow and orange flowers – so I miss out on the striking contrasts a display like this can give you. 

Well obviously I don’t also have years of experience or a fleet of gardeners helping me, either, but this picture does give me some sense of what I’d like my raised bed to be like – lots of different shapes and heights, no gaps or bare earth, lots of contrast, a sense of there being waves of colour laid over darker foliage. Well, it’s something to work towards.

Besides the borders, there were avenues of runner beans and squash, lavender in full bloom, beds of globe artichoke, sweet corn and courgette, and lovely flowers everywhere you looked.

    

  

   
 
Lots of mental notes of plants I’d like in the garden one day…alliums, more poppies, ornamental thistles…plus, the bare bones of the garden structure itself was beautiful, too – the gates, the statues and urns all looking exactly the part.

   
    
 
There was even space for a little topiary of the less conventional kind.

   
 
On the other side of the house was a smaller garden holding a traditional knot garden, mainly planted with herbs.

 

There was also, I was relieved to see, what appeared to be a bit of private fenced-off garden for the family to be away from prying eyes (where else to put your swing ball or hang out your washing?)

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have this as your real, actual everyday garden – I wonder if the owners do go and sit in the main walled garden when all the visitors are gone, or do they see it as more of a stage set for the glorious flowers, rather than somewhere to actually live in, to belong?  
Truth be told, I don’t spend much time sitting in my garden, either – sitting in the house looking at it, yes, but not in it. That is something I’d like to change next year if we can sort some better garden furniture.

I would recommend Helmingham to anyone who even slightly likes gardens – though be prepared to come away with serious envy of all the plants you’ll never have time or space to grow.
Plus the pretty, rather shabby  stables courtyard cafe gave us a chance to watch baby house martins being fed in their nests while we ate our lunch – how lovely is that? 

I’ll be making a plan to come back to Helmingham one day -maybe next time a guided tour….

  

Walks around….The New Forest

We spent a week in the New Forest in June – an early holiday, to avoid peak school holiday season while we still can.

I have spent weekends and other fleeting visits to the New Forest in the past, and it was on my list of places to visit for a proper family holiday – easy walking, close to the sea, ponies – what more do you want?

  
….well, a thatched cottage is pretty good, too!

We had heathland directly over the road from our cottage, (near Beaulieu) stretching away for miles, which was either idyllic in good weather or slightly grim and foreboding, Egdon Heath-style, if you walked out there at twilight, as I did on the first evening.

 

The heath does not lend itself to family friendly walking – too tussocky and boggy and not enough proper paths to follow, so in our goal to find walks which could handle a buggy and a big girl, we went first of all to Bolderwood, a Forestry Commission site famous for its deer sanctuary.
It was a very short and easy buggy/ wheelchair-accessible walk to the viewpoint to see the deer, which was a lovely start to the walk.

  
…and beyond that a bit of a slog round the rest of the trail, an easy walk but not a terribly child-thrilling one, bar the odd fallen tree to scramble on.

Much more to her taste was Moors Valley country park, which had a forest trail with no less than 10 play areas to explore. This pretty much makes it 3-year-old heaven. 

  
Again, this was a buggy friendly walk, although felt like even more of a slog than Bolderwood, because we were constantly stopping and starting, and having to nag at the big girl to get her to move on to the next thing – it was a big hit with her, but time-consuming.

The other thing with these Forestry Commission walks is that one patch of forest plantation looks pretty much like another: there was not a lot of wildlife to be seen, nor any particularly dramatic scenery. It’s all pleasant walking, and being under the trees meant we stayed out of the sun, too, but we wanted to make sure we saw a bit more than just forest.

For that, we went to a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for years: Brownsea Island, famous for being the site of the first Scout Camp, and for its squirrels.

  
I don’t think I could imagine a place more suited to appeal to me – beautiful sea views in all directions (and what a colour the sea was – Poole Harbour is very shallow, and that lovely azure shade of sea made it feel more like a tropical island!), gentle walking on nice sandy soil, and best of all, red squirrels. (See little red dot in fork of tree on this picture).

  
What a privilege to see this wonderful animal for real – and how much cuter it is than the smug urban greys – red squirrels are tiny, mischievous and wiry, that flash of red coming as a joyful sudden sensation of movement out of the corner of your eye. I swear I saw one turn a cartwheel, and I’m sure it was doing it for the sheer fun of it.

We left Brownsea much earlier than I would have liked, as we had to allow enough time for the boat – the ride back is longer, taking in a full tour of Poole Harbour – so a good half of the island will have to wait for us to return another day to be explored. In my dreams I’d stay overnight, but I suspect I might have to (re)join the Scouts for that.

We also spent a day pottering along the New Forest coast, taking in Christchurch and the dramatic viewpoint of Hengistbury Head, (somewhere I’d been years ago, and always wanted to return) which had Tarmac paths all the way up – although a few steps thwarted us getting the buggy to the very top.

 

Besides all of this, we managed to explore the classic New Forest settlements of Lyndhurst and Lymington, visited a farm and also found a good walking route from Beaulieu following the river.
This left us surprisingly little time to relax and actually enjoy our thatched cottage, but on the last afternoon we finally laid our picnic rug on the grass and did nothing. For a short while.

And I couldn’t resist the chance of photographing a few of the cottage garden flowers that were in the immaculate garden – ox-eye daisies, Canterbury bells, love-in-a-mist, and the tallest foxgloves I’ve ever seen. It was complete bliss.  

  

Finally, just because, here’s some of the ponies on the lane outside our cottage one afternoon.

   

When can we go back, please?

A walk around Polesden Lacey

Our efforts to find another buggy friendly walk took us on a rare spring day, that actually felt springlike, to Polesden Lacey, a National Trust property I had never heard of before. It was in the direction of Box Hill, so having been there and knowing how lovely the scenery was round there, I was keen to explore more. 

As I grew up in flat-as-a-pancake Essex, I am always surprised to find rolling, proper hilly countryside only a short drive from London – there is even the odd bit of heathland in *Croydon*! The countryside round the village I grew up in has its own charm and will always be dear to me, but nothing can quite beat the drama and beauty of the North Downs (by Home Counties standards at any rate) – and Polesden Lacey turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem.

  

The house itself is probably not remembered for any great architectural significance, nor is it particularly ancient, and the historical connections are mainly of interest due to the Royal Family (George VI and the Queen Mother honeymooned there, but no great scandal or drama associated with the place as far as I could see). 

It’s the setting, on the edge of a valley, which really makes Polesden Lacey special. What struck me first as unusual was that the main facade of the house looked out along the gardens rather than down into the valley – the ground slopes away so steeply to one side that the gardens are mainly in front and behind the house, creating a very linear structure. This lends itself nicely to creating various garden ‘zones’, some more wild and some more formal, with hedging and walls to divide up the different areas.

  

The buggy-friendly walk takes you along a sandy track away from the house, past a woodland play area, (nicely done, but not wildly adventurous for our mountain goat of a girl) and then doubles back on itself to take in the Long Walk, a level terrace path hidden behind a tall hedge which gives you amazing views across the valley. (See above)

Of course the land across the valley is all part of the estate so it was a beautifully managed vista with what looked like a Wealden-style rustic cottage folly nestled among the trees, a farm in the valley bottom and sheep dotting the landscape in all directions. It was all too perfect not to feel like you were being stage-managed, but when the views are this lovely, who cares, frankly?

There were several longer trails that took you down into the valley – even one that would have been accessible for buggies and wheelchairs assuming you had enough spare hands to help open gates – but we decided to stay inside the grounds themselves, and went on next to the kitchen gardens.

 

This was a scene straight out of Mr MacGregor’s garden, from the rows of lettuces and radishes to the potting shed – the perfect place for Peter Rabbit to hide. The gardens actually grow food that is used in the kitchens and cut flowers for displays in the house – not only sustainable and zero food miles, but actually using the gardens for the purpose they were designed for – awesome and very sensible at the same time.

The other decorative walled gardens weren’t quite at their best when we visited – no roses out yet – but there was a great wilderness area to explore, across a little footbridge from the main garden, and a rockery that was full of interest for a 3-year-old, with little paths winding up and down it to have a proper explore, and lots of ferns and alpine flowers to admire.
  

After lunch, we went inside the house, which had not nearly so much to amuse a small child, although there was a suitcase of costumes to ‘dress up like an Edwardian child’ and a few other hands-on exhibits – more of this, please, is what I’d say! The lavish interior of the house – gold, embossed wallpaper, Faberge, more gold – is a sharp contrast to the more simple pleasures of the gardens outside, but it was certainly worth looking around (and more of the interior will be opened up in future years, they say).

There was a good bit more to the estate than this – an orchard, another woodland area and huge open lawns where families were picnicking, plus the cafe and enormous gift shop with its ubiquitous plant sale. (That is, plant sales seem to be ubiquitous at National Trust properties now, and I ain’t complaining, I thoroughly approve!)

I hadn’t been to a National Trust stately pile for years, I don’t think, and I’m sure this one during the week is full of coach parties trekking round the house- but it was lovely at a weekend to see it full of families enjoying the gardens too. 

Best of all, I discovered later that the cottage across the valley is actually a youth hostel, Tanner’s Hatch. It is inaccessible by car, so you have to walk or cycle from Box Hill station, or leave your car in a lay-by up the lane. You can cook outside on a fire pit, and with no permanent warden I reckon if you struck lucky you could have the place to yourself. 

We aren’t yet at the stage of planning a weekend away without children, but when we do, it’s this place I want to go to, it’s gone straight to the top of my list of most-wanted places to stay. We will definitely be back!