A Prickly Problem

We are no nearer to solving the challenge (?) problem (?) dilemma (?) of our front garden.

Every time I approach our house I feel a little sag of the shoulders at the sorry, weedy, shabby state of it – the house, far nicer now than a few years back, but the thing in front of it, not so nice.

This is the big prickly problem which bothers me the most – the holly. Now, once upon a time I thought I liked holly. Christmas, red berries, wreaths, jolliness, The Holly and the Ivy, all nice warm cosy things, and when we moved into the house, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly large amount of holly, so it stayed.

And then grew, and grew, and spread – I keep finding seedlings everywhere – and never had a single berry. The wrong kind of holly, apparently. Now it has taken over half the main flowerbed and trying to cut it back, even with long sleeves and heavy-duty gardening gloves, is like wrestling with a herd of angry scratching cats.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that holly is prickly – right? – but our holly just seems to inflict pain beyond a point that I find reasonable, and now I just want it gone, the whole lot. Humbug!

Apart from the objectionable holly, there is lots I DO like about the front garden. On the other holly-free bed, across the path, we have Mexican daisies which I adore, mingling with lavender and spilling across the path in proper cottage garden style.

Behind, a red-pink (I want to say scarlet, but I don’t know for sure) hydrangea which at this time of year is reminding me why I like it so much (the one on the other bed having died last winter).

In between the daisies and hydrangea is one of the front garden’s many roses – most of them all old, gnarled, straggling and ridden with black spot, but this one I can’t bear to part with as the flowers are so gorgeous – very pale pink with a hint of yellow at the heart.

How could I banish something as lovely as this from the garden?

Then I have Japanese anemones, which seemed to be in everyone’s front gardens a few years back, so I followed suit and planted some, which seem to have settled in after a few uncertain years (no photos as they haven’t flowered yet), and the bliss of Canterbury Bells which I bought discounted somewhere last summer, planted out very late and they came back up triumphantly this year.

Besides the holly, though, there are some things which are either simply not to my taste – arum lilies, too funereal – or right plant, wrong place, the wretched camellia which looks lovely for a week or so and then drops rotting brown flowers everywhere.

There are also several fuchsia which I want to love, but behave so unpredictably that I distrust them. Every winter they leave a mess of dried sticks when the leaves drop and I never know whether to leave or cut back – will there be fresh growth or have they given up? Which branch to cut and which not to? The plant gives me no clues, so I get annoyed with it.

The real problem zone, though, is the drive and accompanying wall and gatepost. It has crumbled slowly over 5 years and now has a crack on the wall and a loose top to the gatepost (we suspect a neighbour clipped it going into the side return).

It looks shabby, it IS shabby, and the drive with herringbone brick paving is just as bad – ridden with weeds, despite my efforts with a fancy weeding tool.

We need a wider drive to fit the car on properly, and a better surface than paving so I’m not constantly battling weeds, we want the ancient old gates gone, we’d like a bin shed rather than having the bins up by the front door; I’d like a fancy bin shed with a sedum roof, but now we’re getting into pie-in-the-sky territory.

What I’d really love, too, is to replace the weeds in the drive with some proper planting along the edge – a soak- away with gravel and mesh so that we can have something low-growing like thyme or more sedums as a feature. We’ve already had Mexican daisies and violets self-seeding there, and I’d love to encourage them but lose the weeds.

Widening the drive and creating a bin store would also mean losing some of the problem plants, killing two birds with one stone – but doing one half of the garden and leaving the other half (the less troublesome flowerbed) untouched would look a bit odd and unbalanced. I can’t bear the thought, though, of losing plants I do want to keep and have taken time and effort to nurture!

And let’s be honest, this job, when it finally happens, is really about the practical task of getting rid of the wretched wall and sorting out the drive; any actually landscaping or replanting will be a byproduct of the building work, not the main event.

I can definitely say what I’d have if I was doing the whole thing from scratch, though – my inspiration is a house round the corner which went for the gravel-and-mesh look, done a year or so ago, and it looks amazing now, with a really stylish wooden fence too.

It’s got taller plants like red hot pokers and alliums towards the back, and things like sedums, daisies and thrift at the front, which have spread to virtually cover the gravel completely.

This front area is even used as an occasional parking space and it doesn’t seem to affect the plants at all. And it looks like the perfect choice for a sloping urban garden – Mediterranean-style plants which cope well with poor soil and drought seem to be thriving. I walk past it every day and drool for a front garden as impressive as this one. At this rate, it *might* not be this year…but maybe next.

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A walk around…Wakehurst Place

In between the dismal weather, we have had a few nice days out in the country recently, but a couple of trips to Kent have reminded me that, no matter how lovely the countryside, the hum of a motorway is never far away. When your own back garden in inner London is quieter than an idyllic Kent valley, you know something isn’t quite right.

That isn’t a criticism you could level at Wakehurst Place, where we went a few weekends ago. It wasn’t a particularly nice day, but neither was it cold or wet, and the place has an atmosphere no grey skies could dampen.

For a start, there was colour:

I hadn’t known really what to expect – I knew it was an RHS site as well as a National Trust one, and I knew it had the Millennium Seed Bank, but beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions. To start with, it was country house landscaping of the kind I’ve come to expect – then to turn a corner and find the huge banks of colour, almost took my breath away.

The bright pink swathe of whatever it was in the top picture (not a rhododendron, maybe an azalea?) was the most impressive, I nearly missed it as the path had snaked down and round the pond – I happened to turn and look back, and saw the flowers looking like a fuchsia pink waterfall tumbling into the water.

From the landscaped areas around the mansion, we took a path which dropped steeply down a valley and into proper woodland (though being RHS woodland, there were still flowering shrubs popping up everywhere, and of course bluebells).

As the path dropped further down towards a lake, I began to appreciate the calm even more – though also began to worry about the walk back UP and the likelihood of one child doing a face plant and the other needing a wild wee (yes, both happened). The site is HUGE – we saw maybe less than half of it, and we never made it into the Seed Bank either.

It was the Mr who pointed out, though, how quiet it was. I had felt the difference, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. No aeroplanes, though we weren’t far from Gatwick, no motorway drone, no screaming kids except our own.

Deep in that valley, we felt completely cut off – not in an oppressive ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ way, but in a peaceful, ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree‘ way. Give me a little cabin there by the lakeshore and I’d have been quite happy (provided there were no mozzies).

The climb back up to the mansion was much slower, with grumbling children in tow – we are well out of the days of buggy walks now, though much of the site could have been negotiated with a buggy. I stopped to admire raindrops on Alchemilla, one of my favourite plants, late flowering narcissus, and those gorgeous red unidentified leaves. There was more gorgeousness to come – a walled garden full of tulips. I must forget there was ever a time I didn’t really like tulips (did I ever really think they were too garish? Look at these lovely subtle colours!)

We also found a well-stocked mud kitchen, where a t-shirt got irrevocably ruined, and a potting shed where children could plant sunflower seeds.

Plus I haven’t even mentioned yet the impressive nature-inspired sculptures dotted around. I liked these ones in the bee-friendly garden which looked like giant seed-heads, and also a bit like (now I come to think of it), the 2012 Olympic torch.

And I nearly forgot to include the troop of goslings we encountered, and the very tame pheasants wandering around.

Looking back at the photos, I am amazed we packed so much in – and still so much more to see when we next go back.

Definitely adding to the list of favourite places, and when I need to escape the pavements grey, I’ll think myself back into that valley where the rest of the world seemed to drop away.

A walk around…Kew Gardens

I have mixed experiences, shall we say, of visiting Kew.

The first time I went, in 2001, I had a lovely day there with my mum, but the memory is tainted by the fact I got mugged the next day. The photos from our day at Kew are the last ones, unknowingly, I had of my nice burgundy bowling ball style handbag which I was about to be relieved of. Grrr.

The next time was a much bigger success – it was during an exhibition of work by Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor, and his work was, to me, the perfect match for the setting. Elegant spirals and globes of coloured glass floating on the lake in front of the great Palm House was really quite special.

The most recent visits have had their up moments, but have been hampered by rain. We went in January, when everyone was on the verge of being ill, and it was a struggle to have the energy to do anything much. Then we went again at the start of the summer holidays, on a day which had started out lovely, but clouded over within minutes of getting in the car.

Now, there are plus points of a wet day at Kew – the greenhouses are good whatever the weather, and there is an acceptable indoor play area for children which tries to shoehorn in some plant facts, but is mostly just fun.

The other plus side is, in between the showers, you get to see everything looking lush and green with raindrops on roses everywhere you look.

The downside is, there is a lot of ground to cover between the different indoor areas, and surprisingly little tree cover along the main paths, as they are such broad walks with flower borders, the trees are set far back from the path.

Still, we found plenty to explore in the middle of the day before the rain set in – we went to the Hive, a light and sound installation which mimics the activity of bees.

We'd seen it back in January in a fairly dormant state, but now it was in full flow with lights flashing on and off continually, and very restful ambient music playing. If this is a bee's life, I like it.

(Photos show the exterior and interior of the Hive).

From there it's a short hop through the rain to the Princess of Wales greenhouse where the lily pads (see picture near the top) and a real actual iguana were the big draws.

Then, with rain getting harder, we slogged around the lake and through the Alpine garden to get to a toilet stop, (this is another pacing problem, toilets all seem rather awkwardly located, too close to each other and not very close to the big greenhouses).

Then on to the Palm House for a bit of respite from the cold rain – of course we didn't really dry off, just steamed in the humid air – and a final trek back to the car, wishing for a little sunshine so we could have stayed another hour.

Plenty of nice borders and details to snap on the way back, though….(love the giant ornamental thistles, I keep seeing these everywhere at the moment).

I cannot say these wet days out at Kew have been a disappointment when we have still managed to see and do so much, it is just a shame to leave with so much more unseen! I would love to take the children to the pagoda and the treetop walk, and down one of the long avenues which leads to the river, but it's just not doable on a wet day.

Plus the map indicates all sorts of hidden gardens and less well-visited areas I'd love to explore properly.

None of that matters to the children, of course; the indoor play and the very good outside playground next to it would be enough for them, but I hope they'll get more out of it as they get older. One of them may still have an inner botanist yearning to get out. Just a botanist that needs a good sunny day to really appreciate the best that Kew has to offer.

Exploring the White Garden at The Rookery

I was going to call this A Whiter Shade of Pale but I just couldn’t bring myself to. So in place of awful pun, a very pedestrian title for a beautiful place.


I have written more than once about the Rookery, our lovely local walled garden on Streatham Common, and we go there more than ever these days, due to the upgraded cafe, much-loved paddling pool and the convenience for dropping in on the way to or from school. 

With our visits being so frequent, I wasn’t sure there was anything new to write about – till I realised I had never really looked closely at the famous White Garden

It’s right at the bottom of the main walled garden, secluded and usually peaceful, but a bit of a through-route to the other half of the common, Norwood Grove, so I’d never spent time really sitting and appreciating it.


However, recently I had the time, and a compliant toddler, so I decided to stop and have a proper look. (And it was probably the time of year to see it at its best, too).

Apologies that so few of the shrubs or trees are identified – I’d love to know what some of them are, though I do know some of the planting is meant to reflect the history of the gardens and replicate some of what was there originally.

Sweet peaHydrangea
To begin with, there were sweet peas growing up tripods which were exclusively white – I must admit, a little dull when you are used to the classic pastel shades – and a gorgeous pale hydrangea.

The next things I noticed were plants evidently chosen for the pale or silvery foliage (ok, in the second image here, it’s still fairly green, but it has a kind of silvery sheen on it I rather like).

CranesbillOx-eye daisyArum lily
Then there were more cottage garden-y plants – a white cranesbill, popular with the bees, ox-eye daisies (ditto) and the slightly more exotic arum lily.


A proper view of the border gives you a real sense of the scale of the place – the way the greenery is offset by the warmth of the brick wall is very pleasing, with little dashes of white here and there, and the dramatic height of the tree behind.


I especially liked the contrast of this frothy, fluffy shrub against the wall.


And on the other side of the garden, another even more fluffy bush. No idea what it is, but I love it!


Finally, a view of the other border, which is dominated by the tree left of centre – it was hard to get a good picture of it alone, but it had creamy white flowers like a magnolia, but flat rather than bell-shaped.

Not much else to say except what a pleasure it was to take these photos and how glad I am I took the time to have a proper up-close look at the White Garden. 

Please, if you’re lucky enough to have local parks and gardens as nice as this, visit them, enjoy them, appreciate them!

Summer snooping, and assorted chaos

Well, it’s been a funny couple of months. No photos from attractive country locations to share, because we’ve been minus one driving husband for the past 6 weeks, and minus the car for half of that too.

Way back in May some time (I think?) the Mr tripped over a kerb coming out of the station, and several painful hours later decided he’d better take it to A&E. It was apparently only a minor chip to the bone, so he was wearing a boot for 2 weeks. Fine. 

Two weeks later, they realised the X-ray had missed a more serious fracture and the boot would be on for another 4 weeks. Damn.

He was managing alright with the boot outdoors and hobbling round at home, commuting the shortest possible journey in terms of walking distance – bus to the damn Northern Line, my nemesis for many years, but driving was out of the question.

Then we came downstairs one morning to find we’d been burgled and the car had gone anyway – this was at the end of May. We were dazed, but relieved that more hadn’t been taken from the house (just laptops and iPads, all backed up so nothing personal lost – always back up, folks!) but getting a new car was going to be an almighty great hassle.

It was a week later – 1.30am on the night of Bank Holiday Monday, we had the call – Police, we’ve found your car, can we come and collect the spare key in 10 minutes so we can move it? To be woken in the night with amazingly good news was, well, good, but befuddling. I was very sleepy but remember insisting to the Mr ‘check before you open the door, check it really is a policeman’.

Waiting for forensics, and insurers to sort out changing the locks took another few weeks, but the car is back, the door which was forced has new bolts top and bottom and we are throughly relieved all round. 

It has felt very strange not zooming out and about at weekends as we are used to doing, but then it was also the season of birthday parties so we’ve had that to keep us busy, plus the local paddling pool and trips to Greenwich and the Horniman at half term.

I’ve had to fall back on my local patch for admiring flowers – a few favourite houses I like to pass by, and a few new spots as well.


These were spotted in the garden of flats just by Streatham Common – amazing pink daisies, the bees loved them, and the gorgeous colour combination of orange poppies with white nigella.


A view of my very favourite local garden (featured before, I’m sure) – house painted strawberry ice cream pink, which always reminds me of the ‘strawberry pink villa’ in My Family and Other Animals, although SE London does not resemble Corfu in many other ways, I imagine. 

The planting is always beautifully done in purples, reds, and pinks to complement  the house, and the big girl decided she loved the ‘umbrella flowers’ – striped petunias really do look a bit like beach parasols! So I hunted the local garden centres until I found a striped petunia for her. 

A riot of even more purples and pinks: hydrangea, geranium, hollyhocks, clematis. Particularly love that shade of hydrangea – none of mine are flowering yet and one of the front garden ones has barely got going this year at all. Like most of the front garden, it’s rather a mess, but that’s another story.


Something from my own garden I can be proud of, our lovely white rose in the back garden (sadly scentless, but otherwise one of my favourites). I spent a good half hour this morning dead-heading it, so it’s now looking much more sparse, but it always grows back so vigorously I never worry too much about it. 

On the other hand, one of the other roses which was still flowering, I noticed was looking a bit bare in places – so I looked a bit closer…


See those little critters? Here’s a closer look.


It must be the Very Hungry Caterpillar and his friends! Luckily we have enough rose leaves to go round, and we are enjoying doing 30 Days Wild, so this was our ‘wild thing’ for the day. Quite thrilling for small children and me too.


The car/broken foot curfew is almost up, but next few weekends are busy with the school fair and other fixtures – Lambeth Country Show of course – but we will be back to days in the country soon, I hope.

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?