The Swedish garden designer Ulf Nordfjell gave a talk at the Garden Museum last week. The audience was different to usual: taller, better looking and better dressed. In other words, they were Swedish. They all seemed to know each other and as they rabbited away in their own language I felt like I’d stumbled across a new Scandinavian plant-based TV drama soon to be shown on BBC Four.
Ulf talked mostly about his civic projects in Sweden (they’re big on improving public spaces there, to encourage people to live in the cities). I’d like to have heard more about gardening in a cold climate, as that’s what we seem to now be doing in the UK.
Ulf did say, though, that he focuses on perennials that need light, not heat, to grow. I guess the plants in this picture (taken outside the Garden Museum after his talk) fall into that category – they’re all blooming away despite the cold winter and spring.
‘Gardening and drinking go really well together,’ says Lottie Muir, aka the Cocktail Gardener. And she should know – by day she’s a volunteer gardener at the Brunel Museum and by night she mixes delicious cocktails using botanical ingredients.
I’d never heard of the Brunel Museum, let alone its roof garden, before the Chelsea Fringe. The garden sits above Brunel’s Thames Tunnel and was created last year by Lottie, with the help of a small grant from Capital Growth and Southwark Council. Triangular raised beds are laid out like a Trivial Pursuit counter around a fire pit and sun dial. Volunteers in the garden can take the produce home, but Lottie admits that she’s increasingly favouring plants that she can infuse, distill or use as a garnish for her cocktails.
Ah yes, the cocktails. I don’t generally drink in the afternoon but that policy went out of the window the moment I clapped eyes on Lottie’s Midnight Apothecary menu. First up was a Chelsea Fringe Collins (jasmine-infused gin, St Germain elderflower liqueur, rose petal syrup, lemon juice and soda). It was long and refreshing, sweet and sour, pale pink and sparkling, and garnished with sweet william petals and a sprig of lavender. I could have drunk that all afternoon but for decency’s sake I moved on to the non-alcholic but equally amazing Lavender Honeysuckle (lavender-infused wildflower honey, lemon juice, lemon balm, mint and sparkling water – see the pic above).
If I wasn’t such a lightweight I’d have tried the deep crimson Silver Rose Hibiscus (silver rose tea-infused vodka, Cointreau, hibiscus syrup, lemon juice and bitters). As it was I had to be driven home in a daze – the sun, the alcohol, the hum of the bees, the gentle chatter, the fragrance of the lavender I’d been sitting next to and the fact that I was wearing a jumper in the 20-degree heat had all conspired to make me feel a little… sleepy.
The roof garden is a lovely and unexpected space, free to enter, and it’s a real sun trap too. I urge you to go, especially while Lottie is dispensing her cocktails – every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Just make sure you don’t have anything important to do afterwards.
What I like doing best at Chelsea is looking for ideas that I could replicate in my own garden one day. And as I may finally have one (fingers crossed – it’s all going through at the moment), this was a year when I could actually walk around noting ideas that I could actually put into practice. Hurrah!
There were quite a few roses around this year, and I liked the informal, lax habit of the Rosa rugosa in the Brewin Dolphin garden (above).
I liked Christopher Bradley-Hole’s garden but felt I’d seen many elements of it before – the multi-stemmed trees, blocks of box and yew, the meadowy planting, the cow parsley… Not only in previous Chelsea gardens but also at the Canal House in Amsterdam last year. That said, I love a multi-stemmed tree, neatly clipped box, and a bit of meadowy planting, and would definitely like to include them in my own garden.
I also the loved the way that edible and ornamental plants were mingled together in Adam Frost’s ‘Sowing the Seeds of Change’ garden for Homebase. I will definitely be doing this – I want to cram in as many edibles as possible.
I loved this simple oak bench in the Un Garreg (One Stone) garden. It may look simple but I bet it cost a small fortune.
The pebble path in the Healing Garden was designed to be walked on barefoot, stimulating reflexology pressure points.
Ponds scare me. They look complicated to get right, and I’ve seen a lot of bad ones. But this looks really doable – it’s shallow (so not too much digging) and the pebbles cover a multitude of sins.
And for sheer flight of fancy, who could resist this kids’ treehouse in the NSPCC garden? I think it made everyone want to be a kid again.
So there you have it. This time next year I may be the proud owner of a garden that contains some multi-stemmed trees, blocks of box and yew, some meadowy planting, lots of edibles, a pond and a reflexology path. And a treehouse, obviously.
Every show garden at Chelsea tells a story – usually one that’s dictated by the sponsor. Often it reflects a landscape, an environmental issue, or a charitable cause. There’s rarely a garden without an agenda of some kind, which is a shame. The best gardens manage to nod to the sponsor’s brief while basically sidestepping it – I’d never have guessed that Roger Platts’ M&G Centenary Garden was reflecting 100 years of gardening features, and it was all the better for it.
I never read the blurb that I’m handed about a garden. To be honest, I’m not interested in the story it’s trying to tell, or the ‘journey’ that it’s taking me on. Much as I care about some of the issues represented, I just want to look at a show garden and decide how it makes me feel. Do I love it? Does it inspire me? Could I wake up to it every day? Could I try some of those planting combinations at home? Are there elements of the design that I could emulate one day?
On that basis, here are my two favourites.
I’m never going to plant a Japanese garden, but I could happily wake up to An Alcove (Toknonoma) Garden by the Ishihara Kazuyuki Design Laboratory (above). It represents an alcove in a traditional Japanese tatami room, and in Japanese culture, people often meet with important people in such spaces. As I was taking pics, Cleve West was invited by the designer into the alcove – lucky (and important) chap.
The planting in Chris Beardshaw’s Arthritis Research UK Garden (below) stood out for being refreshingly different. There was an abundance of meadowy planting in many of the other gardens (I was cow parsleyed-out by the end of the day and think I might have gone off that style of planting a bit), but this garden had lots of zinging colour, and plants that weren’t found elsewhere (eg lupins, foxtail lilies and Echium pininana). I loved the splodges of Pittosporum tobira that acted like full stops at the end of the borders – a nice alternative to the ubiquitous box balls. I went back to look at the garden several times, and that’s always a good sign.
In other news, I went home with a red face. For once I hadn’t put my foot in it (or if I had, I hadn”t realised it) but had managed to get sunburn. Or was it windburn? Many other people said that their cheeks were also burning. How on earth did that happen on a chilly, cloudy and not-especially-windy day?
I always thought I might like to live on a houseboat until I went on one. The boat was rocking very slightly, and I felt instantly nauseous. Back on dry land, I felt as if I was swaying for hours afterwards. Plus I just do not understand locks, am not remotely practical and am not a tidy person. So all in all, I don’t think it’s the life for me.
On a glorious spring day it did look like a very tempting proposition, though. I loved the little gardens that the houseboat residents have created – everything from wheelbarrows filled with aubretia and beds of tulips to chimineas, little veg patches and window boxes filled with herbs. Very cute.
It’s said that the British are a nation of gardeners, but I’m not convinced. In my search for a home I have seen umpteen gardens – mostly online, a few in the flesh. I haven’t seen one that has been ‘gardened’ in the real sense of the word. Most have just been lawn, sometimes with some shrubs around the edge. The rest have been paved or decked over, often quite expensively (one, described by the agent as ‘stunning’, was completely covered in slate. Ugh).
Whenever I travel by train, I look at the gardens that back on to the railway tracks, and am amazed that people have done so little with the space they’re so lucky to have. But I suppose gardening is like cooking – some people get huge pleasure from it, and the enjoy the process as well as the end result. For others it’s a chore to be got over with as quickly as possible. My heart sinks when I hear the phrase ‘low maintenance garden’, but it’s what many people want.
Jean and Peter Block’s garden, Patchwork, which opens for the National Gardens Scheme, is most certainly not low maintenance. The couple have shaped it (quite literally – it’s on a steep slope) for over 40 years. It has terraces, lawns, ponds, patios, bedding displays, a herbaceous border, trees shrubs, and two greenhouses. It also has umpteen pots, stuffed to the gills with bulbs at this time of year. After flowering, the tulips are deadheaded and left to die down in the pot (those in bedding displays are transferred to pots to die down). In July or August, the pots are dismantled and the larger bulbs saved and stored in the greenhouse until planting time in November. After two or three years they’re replaced with new bulbs.
High maintenance, yes. But I’m sure Jean and Peter would say it’s totally worth it. As would the many people walking around the garden and enjoying a slice of tea and cake last weekend.
These aubretia were so bright in the midday sun that they almost seared my retinas. A lot of the gardens in the road had aubretia cascading down their terraces, but this was the most impressive. It’s clearly lovingly tended.
I featured this wisteria last year (on 22 April, which shows how behind this spring has been), but I just had to share it again. This year it seems even more abundant and gorgeous – I must have caught it at its absolute peak.
While I was taking this picture quite a few people stopped and snapped away on their phones and cameras (they’re probably all blogging about it as we speak). We all had a chat about how amazing it was. One person wondered how it is pruned and another commented that it must be quite dark in the house. I reckon I could live with that – it must be pretty amazing to have violet racemes hanging in front of every window for a week or two.
I was running late, but I’d love to have gazed at this scene for a while. It was just so utterly perfect. This late spring has been incredible, and this is the icing on the cake.
I came across this raised bed a while ago when I was lost in Regents Park. It was summer then, and it was stuffed with marigolds, heleniums and fennel. I found it for the second time last week when I was lost all over again, experimenting with a new route to work. It was a pretty silly idea as I have no sense of direction, and even the helpful ‘YOU ARE HERE’ signs are lost on me.
None of the tulips directly pick out the colour of the door, although the yellow and red ones come pretty close. Which begs the question: if you have a strongly coloured feature, should you match your plants to it, or just grow what you fancy?
A lot of plants are stuffed into this window box – two ivies, four skimmias, three standard olives, several violas and about 10 tulips. It’s more than most people would bother with (and it wouldn’t have come cheap), but it looks gloriously exuberant. The olives, skimmias and ivies are evergreen and so look good all year; they also provide the basic structure. Only the bedding plants will need to be replaced when they run out of steam. Classy.