May 172013

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

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.

PS: The garden is next open on 18 Aug.

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Mar 162011


I love Paris, of course, but there’s one thing about it that I don’t get: you’re rarely allowed to sit on the grass in a park. A few summers ago my French friend Esther and I tried to sneak in a rest under a tree in the Jardin Albert Kahn. We were moved on within minutes by a scary lady with a whistle and a loud hailer.

The grass in the park beyond the gate (above) wasn’t exactly bowling green standard but nonetheless the sign says that the lawn is ‘having a rest’, and that the quality of the grass is ‘everyone’s responsibility’.

Maybe it was just a temporary sign, but Esther confirms that she can rarely find anywhere to sprawl and read a book or sunbathe in summer and she finds it frustrating – especially as she spent many years in London, where you can lounge pretty much anywhere. Maybe the reason why Paris empties in August is because the population is desperate for an alfresco lie- down.