Jul 192012


I’ve been on quite a few work awaydays over the years, and one – a day trip to Ghent, Belgium, for the Floralies in 2010 – will be forever etched into the memory of those involved. Sadly I can’t divulge what happened (what happened in Ghent, stays in Ghent) but let’s just say that it’s strictly UK-only trips from now on.

This year we went to Buckinghamshire (nothing bad ever happens in Buckinghamshire) for a brainstorming session. We discussed the schedule for 2014 (that’s how far ahead gardening magazines work) and then we visited Mary Berry’s garden.

As you can see, it’s rather large. The highlight is most definitely the pond, designed with the help of the former head gardener at Longstock Park Water Garden (Mary has friends in all the right places). It also has a rose walk, tennis court, meadow, lots of herbaceous borders and, not surprisingly, a large kitchen garden. Mary is a knowledgeable gardener and highly recommends Rose ‘Chandos Beauty’ (below) for scent, disease-resistance and flowers until November. I had a sniff and wasn’t disappointed.

And yes, there was cake. Mary was going to give us tea in the conservatory but as it was so cold and wet, she invited us into her kitchen for a cup of tea and a chat. She’s got the biggest Aga I’ve ever seen and the biggest teapot, too.

Apart from us cleaning Mary out of lemon drizzle and chocolate cakes (both delicious, of course), I’m pleased to say that the afternoon passed without incident. Clearly the new awayday policy of venturing no further than 30 minutes from London with no need for foreign currency/a working knowledge of Flemish/valid passports/train tickets/tram tickets/timetables/maps/ash cloud diversions has paid off.

Jun 302012


On a Plants & Planting course at Capel Manor College a few years ago, we students joked that we needed faintly ridiculous, posh-sounding names if we were going to get ahead in the garden design business. Ann renamed herself Honey and Mark called himself Muddy. It was agreed that my name didn’t need changing – it’s ridiculous enough already.

Anyway, Ann/Honey is now busy gardening, designing and advising the good folk of south west London. Her own garden is tiny – just a few metres square – but it feels much bigger. She’s somehow managed to cram in a potting bench, a table, a shed (complete with a green roof covered in sedums, below) and umpteen plants in pots. She’s even managed to divide it into two sections, which gives the illusion of more space.

The climbing white rose is Rosa ‘Sander’s White Rambler’. It’s survived living in a recycling box for the past five or six years, a plastic half barrel for five years before that and a shallow raised border for five years before that.

Like most London gardeners, Ann would love a bigger space. But what’s she’s done with what she’s got is an inspiration for anyone with only a few square feet to play with.

Jun 072012


It’s not often that you come across a street in London that has a real community feel, but Elmsdale Road in Walthamstow is one of them. The street opens its gardens once a year for charity, and neighbours and strangers do the rounds of the houses, admiring the gardens and eating cake.

The houses on the street all have very long, thin gardens, and unusually, many of them are only divided by chainlink fences. I take that as a sign that everyone gets on, and don’t feel the need to barricade themselves in as so many people do these days.

My two favourite gardens (apart from Mel’s, of course, which I’ve featured before) were divided into sections so you couldn’t see the whole garden at once. They both had formal layouts but loose, informal planting and were stuffed to the gills with plants and trees. When I finally get my garden (I’m now looking in earnest, so watch this space) this is the look I’ll be going for.

Mar 252012

St Albans

Most of my possessions are in storage at the moment and I must admit, I’m beginning to miss them. My plants and pots, though, are divided between my mum and my sister’s gardens, so I see them quite frequently. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a nice pot’, only to realise that it actually belongs to me.

The pot in the foreground is mine, and Mum has filled it with some hyacinths that look perfect now, just before they come out fully. The metal ball to the right was a birthday present a few years ago. It’s one of my favourite things – it somehow looks at home in any setting. It came from the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery.

The pot behind belongs to my mum. It contains a hellebore and some kind of bright pink heather – they look pretty good together. In fact the whole patio was looking pretty good, despite my mum’s dire warnings, as ever, that the garden was looking ‘terrible’.

I wonder if, when the time comes, I’ll actually get my containers back. They look quite at home in their new abodes and I’ll feel a bit mean reclaiming them. I can’t see my sister giving up my nice wooden wine boxes without a fight, and Mum is pretty attached to the metal ball… On the other hand there are some piddly pots I don’t want back, because if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about gardening in containers is that it’s best to go big. I’ve got a feeling, though, that only taking back the pots that I still like and leaving the rest is NOT going to be an option as far as the Peerless gardeners are concerned…

Feb 042012

Westbourne Park

There isn’t a plant, let alone a garden, in this pic, but rest assured that come 21st May, the Idler Academy will have a generous coating of chlorophyll. It’s going to be transformed for the Chelsea Fringe, the hotly anticipated gardening festival that will coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show. Around 80 gardens/events/happenings are planned all over London.

I’m one of the fringe co-ordinators, which means I have to oversee a couple of the gardens and check how they’re coming along. This is one of them, and I’m really chuffed to be involved. The Idler Academy is a cafe, bookshop and centre of learning (a group of young people were doing their Latin homework when I visited). Its proprietor, Tom Hodgkinson, also edits The Idler and wrote one of my favourite books, How to be Free.

At the back of the cafe is a tiny garden, and I met up with Tom, top garden design graduate Angela Newman and her former tutor Annie Guilfoyle on a January day to discuss how to transform it into a ‘Grove of Idleness’. I won’t give too much away, but lots of ambitious ideas were bandied around and it’s all very exciting. I’ll bring you pics of the finished garden in May.

Nov 272011

Columbia Road

Just off the buzzing Columbia Road is the quiet oasis that is the Secret Garden Market. It’s in Annie Derbyshire’s small back yard, and the evergreen-clad walls are used to display the vintage clothes, bags, shoes and objects that she sells.

My friend Naomi bagsied herself a 1950s glass jug within seconds and I was drawn to a very cool 1970s? skirt that looked like it was exactly the right size. I was a tad alarmed when I looked at the label, which said it was a size 16. I was assured that it’s the equivalent to today’s size 12. I sincerely hope that it’s true…

Oct 292011

Stoke Newington

This isn’t a gratuitous cat pic, lovely though Cleo is – I wanted her to walk on the lawn but she wasn’t playing ball.

As you know, I don’t like fake plants, but until I was actually standing on this lawn I didn’t realise it was fake. It has some authentic-looking ‘thatch’ and my friend Olivier has left some autumn leaves on it for a more natural look. Apparently the original lawn was always waterlogged and wouldn’t grow, plus Olivier and his partner had nowhere to store a mower. So although I’m loathe to admit it, a couple of metres of fake turf has done the job quite nicely in their garden. It’s from LazyLawn apparently.

Oct 092011


Yesterday I went round to Mel’s for afternoon tea. Before we all got a bit giddy on prosecco, smoked salmon sandwiches, scones, crumpets, chocolate brownies, jelly and ice cream and ginger cake* (phew), I had a nosey around her garden. Mel is chairwoman of Plant Heritage’s London Group and her garden, not surprisingly, has the mark of a plantswoman. It’s packed to the gunnells with interesting plants and she often opens it for the Yellow Book.

The peachy-coloured rose that you can see in the foreground is ‘Compassion’. It smelt amazing and Mel says it hasn’t stopped flowering since early summer. She’s pruned quite a lot of it back but leaves some to climb up the house – a prickly burglar deterrent.

*Mel’s ginger cake came courtesy of the National Garden Scheme website – they’ve started publishing recipes on there, which is a nifty idea.

Sep 112011


This weekend, I had a legitimate reason for ogling at other people’s front gardens. It was the E17 Art Trail and my friend Danny had transformed his road into the Street of Blue Plaques. He had trawled old census records to come up with a plaque for almost every house, commemorating an ordinary person who had previously lived there.

It was a simple yet brilliant idea which was great fun and also strangely affecting. In just 100 years, most of the jobs that people used to toil away at have ceased to exist: dairyman, for example, and fur cutter, and (my favourite) train ticket printer. Some people were working with materials I’m not familiar with, such as Xylonite and mica, and one chap built Britain’s first motorcar. In the spirit of the art trail, most houses in the street were sporting a plaque, and where a house had been bombed in the war, Danny hung a plaque on a nearby tree or railing. Those that weren’t claimed adorn Danny’s own windows (above). You can see them all here.

The art trail, of course, was also another chance to have another look at Danny’s garden. It was looking as lovely as ever, and there was a small gathering of garden aficionados out the back cooing at his imaginative plant combinations. The patio is surrounded by a trellis that’s draped in a large-leaved vine, Vitis cognetiae, and Clematis armandii. I would never have thought of putting a trellis in that spot as it obscures the view of the rest of the garden, or of covering it with such bold plants, but of course it all works brilliantly.