Jun 052013
 
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.

Jun 022013
 
Finsbury Park

Finsbury Park

Naomi from Out of my Shed hosted her second Chelsea Fringe street party this weekend. The sun was shining and there was a great turnout (and supply of cake) from Naomi’s local community. This year, gardening bloggers were also enjoying the event virtually, via a parallel Fringe event called the Bloggers’ Cut (geddit?), organised by Michelle over at Veg Plotting. How very 21st century!

Naomi scored a bit of a coup as she managed to get three Chelsea Pensioners to declare the party officially open. They always visit the Chelsea Flower Show, so it was fitting that they visited a Fringe event too. They caused quite a stir, posing expertly for the (many) cameras and chatting away to the fascinated crowd. And what lovely, twinkly chaps they were. I asked Bob (in the middle) how he’d got there, and he told me he’d walked (he’d got a taxi). Bill (on the right) told me all about life at the Chelsea Hospital. Apparently the food is excellent, especially the crumble. He took some pics on his smartphone. I’d love to have talked to them all for longer.

A bit of Chelsea Flower Show-style planting had also come to Finsbury Park, in the form of some cow parsley in the communal veg patch. I’ve walked past that veg patch many times, and have never noticed any cow parsley. A neighbour told me that Naomi dug it up from somewhere she shouldn’t have, but her secret’s safe with me.

Chelsea-style planting in Finsbury Park

May 282013
 
Rotherhithe

Rotherhithe

‘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.

Brunel

Dec 042012
 

Fondation Cartier, Paris

The French are much better at green walls than we are. There are a few in London – notably at the Athenaeum Hotel and at the O2 (and then there’s my favourite, inside Anthropologie) – but they haven’t really caught on. Paris, on the other hand, has lots, probably because the green wall pioneer, Patrick Blanc, was born there.

This green wall at the Fondation Cartier, created by Monsieur Blanc in 1998, is quite small – a few square metres – but it packs quite a punch. As well as lots evergreen perennials it contains some shrubs, including a giant Fatsia japonica. Apparently never been cut – a gardener just comes in a few times a year to remove any dead leaves.

The effect is slightly bonkers and a tad disconcerting – you  need to walk under it to get into the gallery, and those shrubs do stick out rather alarmingly. Plants do occasionally fall out of green walls – a few years back at the launch of the wall at the Athenaeum Hotel, a viburnum was dislodged by high winds and landed inches away from Tim Richardson, garden writer and founder of the Chelsea Fringe.

I read once that Jarvis Cocker dreams of shuffling off this mortal coil having being felled by a giant ‘G’ from a ‘Gaumont Cinema’ sign. Much as I like all things horticultural, I don’t really fancy meeting my maker courtesy of an earthbound Fatsia japonica.

Jul 032012
 


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…

May 302012
 

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.

May 212012
 

Lambeth

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.

May 162012
 
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.

Apr 092012
 

Tower Bridge

I went to a Chelsea Fringe meeting at City Hall the other night.

It’s a pretty nice walk from London Bridge – walk through Hay’s Galleria and you’re presented with a view of the skyline opposite before Tower Bridge looms into view.

That part of the river has lots of swanky new high-rise buildings and it’s not the kind of area where you’d expect to see much in the way of greenery, so I was surprised to see this garden.

It’s all very snazzy and modern, with heucheras, sarcococca (winter box) and ferns laid out in rows beneath silver birches and magnolias. It’s divided by lots of box hedging, which I like best at this time of year when it’s new growth makes it look bright green and fluffy around the edges. There are plenty of places to sit – the perfect urban oasis.

As I took some pics, I was surprised to see a squirrel darting around one of the granite seats. As I got closer I saw the reason why – someone had left some peanuts in their shells there. I can only assume they were a squirrel fan.

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.