Rewilding – the Chelsea Flower Show 2019

Chelsea is as much a fantastic event for people-watching as it is a place to soak up horticultural inspiration and there was a noticeably incongruous juxtaposition yesterday between some of the gardens and the punters. Glossy, shiny, fashionably dressed visitors* vs lots and lots of wildflowers, liberal use of the naturalistic planting style and rusty steel. There were several areas that looked just like the bottom of our garden or a slice of any hedgerow or riverbank in the countryside. Nature knows best. Cow parsley, ragged robin, grasses, foxgloves, birch and beech and other hedgerow shrubs and trees. Lush, relaxed and ‘wild’ and it was a joy to see. One wildflower that really caught my eye was Adonis annua (Pheasant’s eye) which has scarlet flowers atop bright-green divided leaves. It was used to stunning effect on the Dubai Majlis garden (which was one of my favourites of the show). The most popular cultivated flowers were irises, foxgloves, roses and geums. Shrubs or trees that cropped up a few times were Pinus mugo, Cornus and Pittosporum tobira. One unusual tree that was getting a lot of attention was Aesculus pavia, a small form of horse chestnut native the the US with lovely flowers that were covered in bees.

While it was mostly magnificent, as usual, there was nothing particularly startling or thrillingly unusual at the show. There were some gorgeous gardens with beautiful colour palettes, lovely planting combinations and clever landscaping – and there’s no denying the incredible skill of making these gardens in 19 days – but there was nothing that struck me as totally out-of-the-blue new. It could be that Chelsea has become too corporate and is not the place to find exciting new and challenging design any more. I’m sure commentators have been saying this for several years but I properly noticed it this year. Maybe the RHS has sacrificed the cash cow of Chelsea to the movers and shakers of the business world and it’s the smaller, newer shows at Malvern or Chatsworth where you’ll find new ideas…

Anyway, we still had a lovely afternoon out (day tickets are over £100 each, so we went for the 3.30–8pm tickets which was long enough) – we had a lot of fun and it was a treat to be looking at skilfully put together gardens. I took my camera with the wrong lens (annoying) so all my photos are quite cropped but here’s what caught my eye:



You can clearly see the red flowers of Adonis annua against the sandy-coloured wall.




*Overheard at Chelsea –
An immaculate man: “I took the kids down to the Cotswolds last Bank Holiday.”
His equally well-dressed friend after a long pause: “What do you do there?”
Two women friends discussing slugs and snails: “I find that eggshells baked in the Aga then crushed works quite nicely.”
I wasn’t eavesdropping, honestly 🙂

In a Vase on Monday: the prince of marigolds

There’s a sturdy self-sown Calendula ‘Indian Prince’ that’s pumping out the most glorious blooms at the moment. I absolutely love this plant, with its deep orange flowers and burnished coppery tones on the reverse of the petals. I found the original seed packet (Sarah Raven) still had some seed in it a couple of weekends ago. The best before date was last year, but I sowed them anyway and kept my fingers crossed. Several seeds have germinated but were munched by *something* in the greenhouse, so I’ve brought the tray into the kitchen where I can keep an eye on it! Hopefully, there will be a few more plants to dot about the garden in a few weeks.

Anyway, the large plant in question is encroaching on a rose, so I cut the closest flowers off for a Monday vase. Joining them are some stems of red Salvia, Geum ‘Blazing Sunset’, some bronze fennel, some Linaria and several stems of Briza  – a lovely grass that Cathy at Rambling in the Garden kindly sent me a few years ago. (Cathy hosts this Monday-vase gathering; do click on the link to see her roses and links to many other vases.) The Briza has made itself very much at home in our garden but luckily, it’s easy to pull out where we don’t want it and seeds itself into gaps where we’re quite happy for it to be.

For the past several weekends, we’ve been spending every spare moment in the garden, working hard to tame and control the chaos all in readiness for the village garden safari at the end of June. A biannual event, the safari raises money for the Pilgrim’s Hospice and it’s a great motivator for Getting Things Done. We wouldn’t have achieved half as much as we have without this deadline. I love effervescent, naturalistic tapestry planting, so most of our borders are of the ‘let’s bung this here and that there and see if it works’ approach and I’m delighted with how it’s coming together so far.

Of course there have been failures, either because our chalky soil is too alkaline (even for some plants that are meant to tolerate it), because it’s been too dry (there’s only so much watering one can do) or because we have a ridiculous number of slugs and snails. My amateur science view is that our cats deter the blackbirds, etc, who eat the slugs and snails and so there is an imbalance. We decided to do something about it after we kept losing dahlias, sunflowers, etc, year after year and have introduced a biological control (the nematode Phasmarhabditis) which is watered onto the soil where they seek out snails and slugs and, well, kill them. They are harmless to other wildlife so are a much better alternative to chemicals. Hopefully, this may mean we can grow  dahlias and other slug-food plants without them being reduced to stumps within days. Has anyone else tried this? Did it work?

In other news: the coal tits are no more, sadly. I’m fairly confident it was not down to the cats as there was absolutely no evidence of harm done to birds at all. One day, standing within a few feet of the nest, you could hear the baby birds calling; a couple of days later you couldn’t. I don’t know what happened. Maybe they fledged while we weren’t looking and are happily hopping about the hedgerows. That’s what I hope, anyway.

Family-wise, my daughter has returned from a week in Barcelona on her return leg of the Spanish exchange. She loved it there, had an amazing time and isn’t particularly thrilled to be home. Let’s just leave it at that. One week left of school and then it’s half term, exams are after half term, then it’s the gentle slide into the summer holidays. My eldest will be home from uni in a couple of weeks to work for P&O over the summer. If you’re travelling to France via the Dover–Calais ferry, he might be checking you in 🙂

I’m off to the Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow for a massive dose of horticultural inspiration. I’ll report back soon. Hope you have a lovely week.

Difficult choices

At the risk of opening a large can of worms… We have two rescue moggies who the children love; who David keeps threatening to make into slippers; and about whom I have extremely conflicting feelings. Being a cat-owner and a nature-lover is not easy. I will let the cats sit on my lap and stroke them, I feed them, take care of their vaccinations, etc, but I absolutely hate their cat ways: despite the fact that they’re extremely well fed, their hunting instinct is strong. They catch creatures and sometimes they kill and eat parts of them and sometimes they bring them indoors still alive and kicking. We found a wood mouse nesting behind the freezer (definitely a cat ‘gift’), we’ve searched for hours for the source of the ‘back of the throat’ smell of dead mouse (if you’ve ever smelt it, you know what I mean), we’ve chased shrews up the stairs (yes, they can climb very well), we’ve been woken up by rustling in our bedroom (another wood mouse), we’ve had newts carefully deposited on the kitchen floor with a puddle of pond water, ditto goldfish, and a rabbit in the garden (see my previous post). We’ve found parts of dead rodents and even slow worms by the back door where the cat flap is.

Worse than all that for me, though, is the fact that they hunt, catch and often kill birds. I’ve found dead baby robins, wrens, blackbirds and even a blackcap. This does not sit well with my ex-RSPB staff credentials at all! In the past month, one cat has carefully carried indoors a robin which it deposited, still very much alive, under our bed and a coal tit (again, alive) which it took into my daughter’s bedroom. Luckily, in both instances, we clocked this happening and managed to open the upstairs windows so the poor creatures could fly out.

As it’s breeding season I’ve added ‘vigilant cat watch’ to my daily list. There are birds nesting in the garden hedges and one pair in particular that we’re on high alert for. Coal tits are nesting in a hole in the wall by the back door where the cat flap is… There are definitely chicks in the nest (we can hear them) and the parents have been diligently feeding them. We’ve watched the adults flit from the cherry tree to the fence, to the honeysuckle that’s overhanging the wall and then, when the coast is clear, zipping into the nest in the wall. The cats, however, know they’re there. They’ve been keeping watch. And every time we notice the cats hanging around, we’re shooing them away in no uncertain terms.

I know we should probably keep them indoors for the next couple of months (or even for the rest of their lives) and dust off the litter tray but they would go bonkers. They are very outdoors cats and no-one is volunteering to deal with the cat poo; it’d be down to me. So, there you have it, I love birds but probably not enough to have to incarcerate the cats and shovel their bodily waste every day. And it’s not that simple. There’s the issue of which cat litter to buy (not sustainable) and how to dispose of it (landfill). What’s more important – protecting a few garden birds from predators or avoiding unsustainable products (litter, bags, etc) and adding to the waste mountain?

Isn’t that a metaphor for the bigger problems in our world – we love the Earth but humans still fly in planes and buy goods wrapped in plastic and use disposable nappies and eat foods containing palm oil that’s farmed on land that used to be pristine rainforest. The latest UN report from an intergovernmental body on biodiversity and ecosystems that flagged up in the strongest terms that the natural world is under threat like never before must surely jolt everyone out of complacency. One million species are at risk of extinction and our wild places are under extreme pressure.

As well as revealing the incredible beauty of Earth, an amazing tv programme is revealing some of the impact humans have on our planet – BBC’s Earth from Space. Have you been watching it? One particular shot of huge fishing boats lighting up the oceans off the coast of Argentina to attract squid (they swim towards the light, which they think is the moon) has stayed with me. Thousands of squid swimming up towards the light only to be caught in massive nets and hauled on board. Thousands and thousands of squid, all to be factory processed and to end up on someone’s plate. Sigh.

There are difficult choices ahead and it’s all bloody complicated but we – governments, companies, people – have to do our best to make the right ones.




“Look! What’s that?” called David first thing this morning, pointing out of the kitchen window at our bird feeding station. At first I thought it was a small odd-looking jay but then I realised that it was an extremely large finch. I knew this was special, an unusual visitor, but it took a while for my brain to get into gear and flick through tucked away memories. I rushed to grab my glasses and managed a fleeting proper look before it flew off. A hawfinch. Yes, definitely a hawfinch! Wow. I’ve not seen one for years and years. They’re elusive birds and on the Red List (which means there is concern over the number of breeding pairs in the UK) so it was brilliant to see one here and a lovely start to the day. (This isn’t my photo. I am rubbish at taking photos of moving things! I found it on this website.)

Honestly, of all the changes we’ve made to this garden I think putting in a bird feeding ‘station’ has given us the most pleasure. We all stand in the kitchen watching the comings and goings of goldfinches, bluetits, coal tits, great tits, robins, greenfinches, dunnocks, chaffinches etc as we butter our toast. There’s a water spray bottle on the windowsill to blast at the cats when they sit underneath gazing up hopefully…

Talking of cats, a few hours later, I was sitting at my desk and heard a kerfuffle outside. I glanced up to see both cats on the wall, clearly up to no good. Grrr. I stormed outside to shoo them away and found the object of their attentions sheltering in the lavender hedge – a baby rabbit. Goodness knows what that was doing in our garden. I’m sure we haven’t had rabbits in here before so I reckon the pesky cats picked one up on the Leas, the National Trust land just up the road, and carried it back home to play with. The dog soon joined me and was very interested in the cowering rabbit. I called David to stand guard over it while I took the dog back indoors and found some gloves and a box to put the rabbit in. As soon as I returned and we tried to grab the rabbit, it scarpered between our legs and along the hedge into next door’s garden. Hopefully it found its way home. I’ve been keeping a weather eye on our pets ever since.

Later this evening: the hawfinch came back! It sat on the branch of our Heath Robinson bird feeder ‘tree’ for ages having a good look around. Now it knows we’re a good source of food, hopefully it’ll come again 🙂

Have you any plans for the bank holiday weekend? We’ve been invited to a party tomorrow but otherwise we’ll be taxi-ing our children around (the middle ones driving test booked in June!) and doing as much as possible in the garden, weather permitting. Hope you have a lovely one.


In a Vase on Monday: flowers for Mum

My Mum is having a couple of weeks of respite care and I’d arranged to visit this morning with the boys so she could hear about one grandson’s Indian adventure and say goodbye to the other before he headed back to uni this evening. I picked a handful of flowers to take for her room and snapped a few quick photos before we left so I could join in with Cathy’s Monday gathering.

The cherry tree in our back garden is heavy with massive pom-poms of pink blossom, so I cut a couple of low-hanging sprigs. Joining the cherry blossom are Cerinthe major, forget-me-nots, tulip Queen of Night, rosemary (I can’t remember which variety this is – the flowers are much pinker than the bog-standard R. officinalis which we have elsewhere in the garden, plus it smells divine), and a few sprigs of Erigeron karvinskianus.

I was a little apprehensive about visiting her but it was lovely to see Mum looking so happy and relaxed and she loved the flowers. We sat in the sunshine in the beautifully planted garden of the home where she’s staying and exchanged news. The time flew and it was soon her lunchtime so we walked with her to the dining room where she introduced us to her friendly fellow diners and we said our goodbyes. Driving away, we all felt relieved that she’s being so well cared for, that she’s having lots of visitors and she seems very happy. It’s all new territory for our family and if I think about it too much it makes my head and my heart hurt. Thank goodness for flowers, hey?

It’s been a funny old Easter here. The day I wrote my previous post – thank goodness I had that glorious calm start to the day – my daughter developed a fever, spent the next 24 hours or so vomiting, then had a swollen and very sore throat for a few days. She’s been properly poorly, poor love, but is thankfully on the mend and will hopefully be ok to go back to school tomorrow. As a result, we had a very low-key weekend with just the five of us but that was fine. In between nursing duties, I exchanged my marigolds for my gardening gloves and spent as much time as I could outside.

My mother-in-law visited us last weekend and waved her magic wand of motivation and, hey presto, we have finally renovated our dilapidated garage. It’s at the bottom of the garden, we can’t see it from the house and it has been a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Suffice to say, we had been putting this big job off for a long time.

This photo was taken after the lintel over the door was repaired by professionals (!) and we’d sanded down the wooden doors (ie it used to look a lot worse). You can see where ivy had grown all over the left-hand side and it had even grown into the render on the right and lifted it away. We had to chip off where it had blown:

And this photo was taken yesterday. Once all the rendering has been sorted out and repainted and and some of the glazing in the doors replaced, it’ll look even better but it’s getting there and our neighbours in the flats below may now start talking to us again!

As well as sorting out the garage, we’ve also done masses of gardening – mostly clearing and weeding but it has been wonderful to be outside getting acquainted with everything again. My wrist has been fully exercised and my arm is definitely getting stronger although, bizarrely, my elbow is really feeling it. It is so good to be (almost) fully functioning again.

Right, there’s a pile of shirts to iron for school tomorrow. It feels a little brutal to be back to normal life so suddenly after the long Easter weekend – we waved David and elder son off earlier, back to work and uni respectively, and the house feels weirdly empty with just the three of us again. I need to move the cat off my lap, remind the two remaining children we’ll need to be out of the house at 7.35am tomorrow (ouch) and set up the ironing board.

Wishing you a good week.


There’s a spot where I sit on the steps down to our front garden where I’m sheltered by the walls on either side but I can see the lower terraces and the sun glistening on the sea on a clear, still morning. I was awake just after 6am, well before anyone else. We’re all ‘on holiday’ this week, everyone is at home – all the children returned from their travels, David off work – and everyone was sound asleep in their beds so I crept downstairs, emptied the dishwasher, cleared up the late-night mess from the teenagers,  made a large mug of tea and headed outside. Sitting on the cold step in my pyjamas, surrounded by birdsong and the sound of the sea in the soft haze of an early morning of a good-weather day, I felt alive, revived and hugely contented and chuffed that I was outside rather than snoozing for another hour in bed. I’m not a natural early riser and so it always feels something of an achievement when I manage to rise and catch this magical part of the day.

Anyway, I just wanted to share that with you. The photos don’t capture the glistening sea – you can just make out a slightly rosy glow behind the trees in the first photo – but they do portray the softness of the light. Sorry you can’t hear the birds singing, though. Right, I must get on with the day. Hope you have a good one.


In a Vase on Monday: floral perks

My Monday vases this week are full of flowers that a) I didn’t grow, b) I didn’t pay for, and c) I didn’t even pick. They’re all leftovers from our village Spring Show on Saturday. One of the perks of being on the gardeners’ association committee and helping to put on these shows is that you’re able to give a good home to any unwanted blooms that people leave behind.

I’m completely in love with the large pale pink tulip – it is one of the three stems that won ‘Best Exhibit in the Horticultural Section’ and they drew much admiration on the day. The woman who entered them didn’t know the variety of tulip but I think it could be ‘Pink Impression’. I also love the lily-flowered purple tulip which could be ‘Purple Dream’. If anyone knows for sure which varieties these are, please leave a comment below – thank you.

I was surprised by the number of entries of Narcissi because most of the daffs in my garden have either gone over or failed to flower. Only one of my beloved N. ‘Actaea’ has bloomed so far this year, the rest have come up blind. Talking to fellow gardeners around here, we reckon the very long dry summer last year is to blame. I’m hoping that if I feed and water them well this spring, they’ll recover and flower again next spring. If not, I’ll buy some more. (I’ll probably buy some more anyway!)

There was an impressive variety of beautiful Narcissi shown on Saturday and I was very lucky to bring a few home. They’re filling the room where I sit typing with the most delicious daffodil scent and brightening up a dull corner. There’s a white frilly edged tulip nestled in there, too, which could be ‘Daytona’. Again, if anyone knows, please let me know. I particularly like the pale daffs and have made a note to plant more this autumn. Good white and pale varieties are ‘Thalia’, ‘Elka’ and ‘Pueblo’. There are several multi-headed and highly scented varieties too. When you think of daffodils, it’s usually the traditional yellow version, but it’s amazing just how many varieties there are in all shades and combinations of yellow, cream and white, some with orange centres, tall and short, large flowers and small, single heads and multi-headed. As with most plants, there’s a variety to suit almost everyone.

It’s the school Easter holidays and with my two school-aged children off on their travels, I started the week off by having a lie-in. Bliss. It’s been such a full-on time recently that I’ve decided to take my foot off the pedal a little for a few days, to do as little around the house and as much out in the garden as possible. I hope you have a thoroughly good week, whatever you have planned.

As usual, I’m joining Cathy at Rambling in the Garden for her Monday vase gathering. Do visit her blog where you’ll also find links to other garden bloggers around the world.