The Grove of Idleness

Westbourne Grove

A while ago, I published a picture of a dark, dank space at the back of the Idler Academy, and promised to show you its transformation for the Chelsea Fringe. So here it is: the Grove of Idleness. These pictures were taken at the opening party last week, when lots of people packed into the small space to admire the garden, have a drink and listen to mediaeval music.

Designed by Angela Newman, the garden is inspired by mediaeval herbers. These were small, enclosed gardens designed for retreat, contemplation, talking about love and listening to the lute. Now it’s a space for drinking tea or coffee, eating cake and soaking up the sun – the garden is a real suntrap.

The unflappable and super-efficient Angela has done an amazing job on a small budget. She’s employed several cunning tricks, such as covering the uneven, dark old patio with light-coloured gravel (cheap, and it lightens the space, too) and squeezing in seating for 16 people by including benches around the walls. All of the furniture comes from IKEA.

Serendipity has played a part in the garden as well – while we were in the cafe earlier in the year, a willow designer called Judith Needham was having a Latin lesson. She overheard our conversation about the Fringe and offered Angela her services. The result is the beautiful willow arch at the entrance to the cafe and the willow cladding around the raised beds.

All of the plants used in the raised beds – irises, lavender, herbs, aquilegias and so on – are cultivars of plants that would have been around in mediaeval times. And there are some gorgeous packets of seeds on sale too, all illustrated by Alice Smith, who did the cover of proprietor Tom Hodgkinson’s latest book, Brave Old World.

Unlike many gardens in the Fringe, the garden is permanent. Do go and eat, drink and make merry there if you can.

Chelsea 2012


Unless you’ve been living in a cupboard under the stairs, you’ll know that the Chelsea Flower Show is taking place at the moment. I went on Monday, on press day. It’s a privilege to walk into the  showground early in the morning, the air heady with anticipation, and to glimpse the show gardens for the first time. I’ll admit that I’m more interested in the show gardens than I am in the displays in the Great Pavilion. Maybe that will change when I get my own garden, as I might actually be in the market for buying some plants.

This year, the must-have plant seemed to be cow parsley. A colleague quipped that he spends most of his life trying to keep it out of his garden. There was a very high box ball and topiary quota, too. Some of the big gardens on the Main Avenue looked a tad similar, with lots of naturalistic, romantic planting – a reaction to the double-dip recession maybe? Or a homage to the big Chelsea cheese and gold medal winner Tom Stuart-Smith? And oddly, there was very little grow-your-own in comparison to the last few years, so maybe that bubble is beginning to burst.

This year, I decided I’d ‘judge’ the gardens on whether I’d like to wake up looking at them every day. My favourites are below. I wouldn’t actually want Diarmuid Gavin’s creation (above) outside my back door, but it was most definitely fun. Due to vertigo issues I only got halfway up, but it was great being able to set foot in a show garden, especially one that involved ladders, waterfalls and slides.

And then, of course, there were the celebrities. I’ve come to the conclusion that spotting celebs on press day at Chelsea is a bit like going on safari. On safari you’re told what you might see – zebras, lions, elephants etc – and you really, really want to tick them off your list. At Chelsea, you’re given a list of the celebrities who may be present (Christopher Biggins, Floella Benjamin and Ringo Starr are usually guaranteed), and you really, really want to tick them off the list. You get jealous if someone has seen someone you haven’t, even if they’re a bit Z-list, and get over excited if you spot anyone at all (my colleague Jane, visiting Chelsea for the first time, cried: ‘Oh my god, it’s JENNIE BOND!!!!’. We haven’t let her live that one down).

If you get wind of a crowd gathering, see some flashbulbs going off, or hear a rumour that someone off the telly is nearby, you hotfoot it there indecently quickly, camera or smartphone held aloft and sharp elbows at the ready. This is what happened when I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was in the vicinity last year, and the same thing happened this year with Sir Cliff Richard. I’m not proud of it and I don’t know why I did it, but there’s a pic of him at the bottom of this post anyway.

The Homebase Teenage Cancer Trust garden by Joe Swift

There was a lot going on in Joe Swift’s garden compared to others on the Main Avenue, but it was ordered, welcoming, contemporary and considered. I’d seen some drawings beforehand and the garden didn’t look particularly inspiring, so the finished result was a surprise. All the years commenting on other people’s show gardens for the BBC have obviously paid off.

The Brewin Dolphin garden by Cleve West

I sat on Cleve’s bench for a few moments with a bunch of other hacks. I loved the planting  – naturalistic but with lots of pops of colour. Apparently there was some red, white and blue to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but it was very subtle.

Celebration of Caravanning by Jo Thompson

Jo Thompson’s garden was an inspiration for anyone with a small space. She used mature birch trees, Betula albosinensis  ‘Fascination’, which were perfectly shaped and not remotely overpowering – perfect for a town garden. And who wouldn’t want Doris (the 1950s caravan) at the bottom of their garden?

The Bradstone Panache garden

More inspiration for small gardens. The clever layout included a path that was a continuous curve, leading to a seat. The sweep of alpine strawberries (on the right) was a nice touch.

Satoyama Life

This Japanese masterpiece invited you to just stand and gaze at it. Which I did, for a long time.

The World Vision Garden

Lots of hard landscaping and tree ferns isn’t really my thing, but the underplanting was really pretty in this garden, in shades of purple and orange. I couldn’t really do it justice in this pic.

A national treasure


A towering achievement


The Chelsea Fringe has begun! Here’s one of the projects – Living Towers made by landscape architect Adam Shepherd. They’re still a work in progress in this pic, which was taken after a Fringe meeting last week at the Garden Museum. Adam specialises in green walls, and these towers are planted with persicaria and foxgloves.

At the Chelsea Fringe party at the museum this week, the Bicycle Beer Garden (above) also made an appearance and there were also giant tulip sculptures from Jigantics (below). That’s not to mention some cucumber and thyme-infused gin and some barn dancing.

The Fringe now has over 80 projects – not bad considering that the organisers would have been happy with around 20.  And it’s all been pulled off without a sponsor – just the hard work of lots of volunteers. I’m really proud to be a small part of it.

Longstock Park Water Garden



‘I don’t think there’s much to see there,’ said the taxi driver when he dropped me off at Longstock Park Water Garden. That proved to be something of an understatement.

The International Water Lily Society once called Longstock Park the ‘finest water garden in the world’ and I’d go along with that. Two and a half acres of lake, fed by the River Test, are interspersed with islands linked by little wooden bridges. The garden is expertly planted with aquatic and moisture loving plants and it’s immaculate: the entire garden is weeded once a week and two and a half miles worth of lawn edging is perfectly clipped. The hostas are entirely untouched by slugs, thanks to the ducks who munch on their eggs.

On a rainy day, the garden was overwhelmingly green thanks to the lawns and lush new growth, set to explode into colour any day now. It was also incredibly tranquil. For a few minutes I sat in the thatched summerhouse, watching the rain falling softly into the lake and ignoring my phone, which was gently beeping at me.

On the train back, I read that John Spedan Lewis (of John Lewis fame – the garden is owned by the John Lewis Partnership) had a phone installed in the summerhouse so that he could work there and enjoy the view. If he was still around today he would no doubt be sitting there with his Blackberry.

Naomi’s garden (again)

Finsbury Park

My friend Naomi is fast becoming something of a celebrity.

She’s the current go-to person when any media outlet wants an interview on community gardening – not least because of her street growing project‘s involvement in the Chelsea Fringe. She’s had Bunny Guinness on the phone for the Telegraph and BBC (radio and TV) crews beating a path to her door. And rightly so – she’s media friendly, knows what she’s talking about and is talking from first-hand experience.

So it’s just as well that Naomi’s front garden is looking pretty good. The raised bed beneath the window is filled with tulips (‘Helmar’ and ‘Burgundy’). Another is filled with veg. Expect to see quite a lot more of it, and the rest of Naomi’s street, on a TV screen near you soon.

Regents Park

Regents Park

I walk through Regents Park several times a week but I never get bored of it – the planting schemes change quickly and it’s big enough for there to always be something new to discover. I’d never seen this area before – it’s up near the theatre. It looked stunning in some rare late evening sun last week.

Yes, sun! Remember that?



On my way back from St Leonard’s Church (see below) I popped into Spitalfields, where this bench outside Verde & Company caught my eye. I like the way little tables are built into the bench – something that would work well in a smaller garden. I also like the little box for the geranium.

The queue was snaking out of the door, and now I’ve looked at the cafe’s menu online, I can see why. I wish I’d gone in.

St Leonard’s Church


On a rare sunny day last week (since when did May become the new December?) I went to St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch to see how the Oranges & Lemons Garden for the Chelsea Fringe is coming along. Things are really progressing – Dan, the designer, has got hold of some astroturf to cover the ground and is borrowing lots of Mediterranean plants from the very classy Clifton Nurseries. He’s secured 25 deckchairs for people to lounge on and is in talks with caterers, too.

The Shoreditch Sisters and a team from the Independent on Sunday are going to help build the garden (the paper’s political editor, Jane Merrick, wrote a great article on the Fringe that you can read here.)

Dan’s still working on the logistics of cladding the church pillars with real oranges and lemons – if anyone has access to a cherry picker or scaffolding (for free), please let me know.

The garden is also being worked on by some students from the Hanbury Project. The project gives practical training to people recovering from homelessness, addiction, mental health problems, learning difficulties and long-term unemployment. The churchyard, to the side of the church, is planted and maintained by them. It looked magical on a beautiful May morning.

Village people


This cottage garden isn’t the type of thing you’d necessarily expect to see in E17, but Walthamstow has it’s very own ‘Village’, don’t you know. It comes complete with some groovy shops and restaurants and the poshest Spar I’ve ever seen – stuffed to the gills with many types of olive, posh wines and even a woodfired pizza oven.

This row of cottages nearby is like something out of Midsomer Murders, and this garden even has a white picket fence. I almost expected to see John Nettles pop up from behind a hedge.