Tom Stuart Smith’s garden


There’s a new entry to my notional and ever-changing list of Top Ten Gardens That I’ve Ever Visited: Tom Stuart Smith’s garden in Hertfordshire. It was open for the Yellow Book a couple of weeks ago and a £7 donation to charity bought the opportunity to see the private garden of one of Britain’s best garden designers.


And boy, it’s good. The setting is incredible – just off the M25, in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, yet surrounded by green fields. And of course there’s oodles of space – perfect for experimenting with different planting styles and indulging every design fantasy. But just like Tom’s gold medal-winning Chelsea Flower show creations, his own garden is not remotely showy, just perfectly executed.

The hard landscaping is classy, but not flash – it doesn’t detract from the plants. Part of the garden is more traditional, with deep, tall herbaceous borders against a backdrop of shaped but shaggy hedges. The more contemporary part of the garden is home to the water tanks that formed part of his Chelsea 2006 garden – one of my favourites ever at Chelsea. At the moment the dominant colours are acid greens, dark pinks and purples from astrantias, euphorbias, French lavender, grasses and sage.


I’ve seen Tom do talks on his Chelsea gardens, and he’s very modest about his achievements. He makes the whole thing sound so effortless – like it’s really no big deal to create a Best in Show garden. On the open day, I heard him telling one visitor that he doesn’t do any particular lawn care and saying to another that many of the plants he uses are ‘bog standard’ – Geranium psilostemon, alliums and sweet rocket. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse – most people have bog standard plants in their gardens and don’t bother much with lawn care, but their gardens don’t look like Tom’s. Not least because of their size, but also because it’s darn hard to put plants together well. Mum and I went back to her problem border (home to several of Tom’s ‘bog standard’ plants), and made a note to get hold of some sweet rocket pronto asap. Well, it’s a start.


How to judge a tree pit

Finsbury Park
Finsbury Park

As part of Out of my Shed‘s street party for the Chelsea Fringe, I was asked to judge eight tree pits that had been planted up in the local area. It’s the second time that I’ve been given this job, and it isn’t easy. Any tree pit that is planted up is infinitely prettier than one that isn’t, and who am I to judge one community-minded gardener’s plot against another? This year, I roped in gardener and fellow blogger Colin to help me.

Boy, was Colin a hard taskmaster. I was inclined to take each pit at face value – ie. what it was looking like on that particular day. But Colin’s assessments went much futher than that. He was looking for great structure, appropriate plant associations, good use of colour and more than one season of interest. All from a couple of square feet at the base of a tree!

Luckily Mr Mian’s tree pit looked great on the day AND met most of Colin’s exacting criteria, so we were unanimous in voting it the winner. The scheme was simple – mostly hardy geraniums – but there were also other perennials and lemon balm. The billowy plants were spilling over the pavement and could be seen from several metres away. We saw some other lovely ideas, too – one pit was planted with wildflowers, and another with yellow wallflowers that matched the front door of a house.

All of the ideas for the tree pits were infinitely better than those suggested on a recent Chelsea Fringe edition of Gardeners’ Question Time – Eric Robson suggested planting ground elder. The residents of N4 could show the panel a thing or two.

Hampton Court Flower Show 2012

The RHS Hampton Court Flower Show is very different to its older, cooler, classier sister, the Chelsea Flower Show. Personally, I prefer Chelsea for its sheer unattainable perfection, but Hampton Court comes at a more interesting time of year plant-wise so the gardens, while more modest, look more varied. You can buy plants, children are welcomed, and there are plenty of places to put your feet up.

Some of the exhibits and stands seemed a little off the mark for 2012: do people seriously buy hot tubs and savannah-style lodges during a recession (and in the worst summer in living memory)? But there was lots of grow-your-own inspiration (after a notable absence of anything edible at Chelsea), and a new area of urban planting ideas.

There was also a ‘High Impact, Low Cost’ category of gardens created on a small budget. I heard several people mutter that budgets of £7K, £10K and £13K are not exactly ‘low’, but I liked the spirit behind these gardens. They were all an average size and showed what you can do with a bit of ambition and a willingness to forgo a traditional lawn.

My favourite was ‘A Compromising Situation’ by Twigs Gardens (above). It wasn’t at all flash or fancy, just a simple layout that broke the garden into sections. It squeezed in two seating areas, a pond, lawns, lots of plants (including wildlife-friendly ones) and a meandering path. Classic design textbook stuff, and perfect for any smallish garden. I’m going to bear this vision in mind when an estate agent next shows me around a house with a small garden that I’m struggling to see the potential of.

Many of the grow-your-own exhibitors had eschewed the ‘harvest festival’ look this year. If I had more space here I’d show you the Garlic Farm stand, which was a delight – garlic and leek flowers mixing with cow parsley etc in a meadowy, billowy mass – or the Seeds of Italy display which took its inspiration from the Italian Alps.

But instead I’ll bring you the Otter Farm stand (above), a ‘forest garden’ created by Mark Diacono. It had a few plants that you might recognise – eg apricots and lemon verbena – and many more unfamilar delights, such as a Szechuan pepper tree (very pretty), Oca (Oxalis tuberosa), the rhubarb-like sweet coltsfoot, (Petasites japonicus var. giganteus) and Japanese ginger (Zingiber mioga, whose name I think Mark might have made up). The stand was original and refreshing and I wanted to buy all of it.

I fell in love with my friend Mark’s garden, A Coral Desert (above), before I realised his company designed it. Cacti and succulents were used to create a ‘coral reef’, housed within a walk-in blue box. I almost expected the plants to wave around gently in the water, that’s how realistic it was. A genius idea that won a Silver Gilt.

Dan Shea, who you last saw on this blog shaking Camilla Parker-Bowles’ hand at the Oranges & Lemons garden for the Chelsea Fringe, designed the ‘Uprising’ garden (above). It was inspired by the riots in Tottenham, where Dan lives. Orange and yellow have most definitely been Dan’s signature colours this year, and late last week he was still driving around the country trying to source flame-coloured plants such as Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ and Asphodeline liburnica (Jacob’s Rod). Luckily he found them, and he won a Silver medal for his efforts.

Last but not least, the prize for ‘best bench’ must surely go to the Edible Bus Stop garden. If the designer, Will Sandy, hasn’t patented the idea already, then he should. It could catch on…

The Idler Academy

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.

Faking it

South Bank

As I’ve mentioned before, fake plants really get my goat. My heart sinks every time I see a plastic box ball, and it’s sinking quite a lot at the moment as they seem to be getting more and more widespread.

I don’t think there’s any need or excuse for fake turf, either – even if it was allowed at the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time last year. God only knows the environmental implications of the stuff.

But conversely, this artificial grass I can live with. Of course I wish it was the real thing, but that wouldn’t be easy on a concrete base in the middle of the South Bank (although they have managed it a bit further along in the fabulous rooftop garden on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall). But I like the fact that it introduces an element of green, and invites people to lounge about and play – key elements in a real garden.

Let’s just hope people don’t feel so inspired that they go home and promptly install a fake lawn in their back garden.

Gwyneth Paltrow

My mum always used to say that if the Queen went past the bottom of our road, she wouldn’t wouldn’t so much as leave the house to give her a wave. And then one day the Queen did go past the bottom of our road. And who was at the front of the crowd, angling for a better view and waving furiously? My mum.

Celebrity is a curious and powerful thing. At the Chelsea Flower Show the other day I noticed that a crowd of photographers had gathered around the B&Q garden. It turned out that Gwyneth Paltrow was expected there in about ten minutes.

Now up to that point, I had not been particularly interested in Gwyneth Paltrow. I knew she was married to Chris Martin. I knew she had children with strange names. I even knew that she had a cookbook out. But that’s as far as my interest went – until I realised that I might see her, in the flesh, very close to where I was standing. All of a sudden, I was very interested in Gwyneth Paltrow.

It took a while for Gwynnie to appear. First of all we got Lorraine Kelly. Then Kirstie Allsopp. All the while the scary lady in the orange jacket was desperately trying to keep photographers and rubberneckers away from the judges in Diarmuid Gavin’s garden next door. WILL YOU PLEASE RESPECT THE PRIVACY OF THE JUDGES!?! she cried, in vain.

Then the scary lady’s day got a whole lot worse, because just at the very moment when the hallowed judges moved over to begin their critique of the B&Q garden, along came Gwyneth. The crowds moved in, a few hundred flashbulbs went off and the judges were completely sidelined.

At this point I underwent a bizarre transformation, from starstruck bystander to full-blown paparazzo. As luck would have it, I found myself quite near Gwyneth as she listened politely to the B&Q man and got quite a good shot of her then. Not content with that, I then squeezed to the front of the crowd of paps and took some more pics. And then I edged my way along and took some more. All the while photographers were shouting GYWNETH! TURN AROUND GWYNETH! OVER HERE GWYNETH! from all angles as she paraded around, shamelessly clutching her new book. I took an ironic and knowing shot of Gwynnie and all the paps opposite.

And then as quickly as she came, Gwyneth was gone, and I reverted back to the serious gardening journalist that I really am.

The following day, a friend emailed me a pic that he’d spotted on the BBC News website. In the crowd you’ll see a serious gardening journalist looking ridiculously pleased with herself as she paps a celebrity. Oh dearie me.





Press day at Chelsea

Take one freezing, scantily clad model…

Alan Titchmarsh looking dapper…

Rachel de Thame looking fetching…

Some judges looking serious…

A scary lady in a high-vis jacket keeping everyone away from the judges…

A lady in national dress playing an unrecognisable instrument…

Some lovely Chelsea pensioners…

A great star spot…

And Floella Benjamin

… And you have a typical press day at Chelsea. Oh, and there were some gardens too, but more about them soon.