My neighbour’s kniphofia

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Kniphofia, otherwise known as Red hot poker, is not a plant that I’m usually drawn to. I’ve often seen it looking rather forlorn, a tatty garden plant that looks out of place and uncomfortable in its surroundings. But one of my nearby neighbours has planted them along her south-facing verge and they’re thriving. I think this is K. rooperi but it might be K. uvaria; I’m not familiar with the varieties.

Hailing from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Kniphofias are tough, hardy evergreen or herbaceous perennials. They like a sunny site, well-drained, fertile soil, and will cope with dry areas such as the base of a hedge, as here. The RHS website says they prefer acid to neutral soil, but the soil here is alkaline and they don’t seem to mind.

They flower from late summer to winter – I remember these flowering well into deep winter last year; it was extremely mild. I love they way they glow in the autumn sunshine and look, well, rather magnificent. I might have to change my mind about them.

(The photos were taken with my phone and don’t bear close inspection.)

 

From a Norfolk garden

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We’re spending a few days at my mother-in-law’s place in Norfolk. Unfortunately I’ve had some work to do – a downside of being freelance is that work is sporadic and often last-minute and Needed Back Urgently, which means I often end up working when I’d rather not be. I did manage a walk with the dog this morning, however, and a wander around the garden with my camera, so it’s not all bad. Oh, and I did spend 20 minutes lying in a hammock watching a large flock of swifts wheeling and scything through the sky. (It’s important to have regular breaks.) Plus I’m not having to think about meals and cook, which is a real treat!

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There’s a fine patch of Echinops (globe thistle) by the front drive which is buzzing with bees.

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My mother-in-law is an intuitive gardener and her garden gives her (and others) much pleasure. Since moving to this house in 2002, she has turned what was essentially a building site rather than a garden into a generous cornucopia of planting and has filled very nook and cranny with greenery.

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Any idea what this is? The delicate flowers are that lilac-y colour that glows at dusk and the seedpods are silvery with a beautiful teardrop shape (although most of them have been snipped off in this photo).
A blooming hydrangea making a bold statement – love or hate (I am ambivalent) these blowsy plants, they do have impact.
A blooming hydrangea making a bold statement. I am ambivalent about them in the garden but love them as a cut flower. Love them or hate them, these blowsy plants do have impact.
Another mystery plant (although, is it a Veronica?)
This white Veronica (not sure of the variety) has a lovely, upright habit and forms a neat clump.
This acer outgrew its original home (a pot) and was planted here to provide a focal point. I think it works very well and seems happy here.
This little acer outgrew its original home (a pot) and was planted here to provide a focal point through the archway at the bottom of the garden. There’s a handily placed swing seat for you to sit and admire it.

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I do like nasturtiums. They're very easy to grow, undemanding plants with beautiful, jewel-like coloured flowers and you can eat them. What's not to love!
I do like nasturtiums. They’re so easy to grow and are undemanding plants with beautiful, jewel-like flowers, and you can eat them. What’s not to love. This one is growing in a pot with a fuchsia and provides a vibrant burst of colour.
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A potted calla lily looking gorgeous in the late afternoon sunshine.

She loves her plants and experiments with propagation (which often involves chopping a plant in half and sticking bits here and there to see what works best). Whenever she comes to visit, she’ll bring a piece of this or that, or a clump of something that might be useful/ interesting to us. This time, we’ll be going home with a few paper bags containing various lupin seed heads to give them a go next year, although I suspect our snail population will be the main beneficiaries.

The end of the garden opens onto a field and is framed by a wrought-iron gate, grasses and Acanthus spinosus (bear's breeches).
The end of the garden opens onto a field and is framed by a wrought-iron gate, grasses and Acanthus spinosus (bear’s breeches).
The view through the gate after the field had been cut earlier today.
The view through the gate this evening after the field had been cut earlier.

 

Trying to fit in too much (as usual)

Yet another photo of alliums. They are looking so spectacular at the moment that I had to show you (again)!
The alliums are now fully out and looking so spectacular that I had to show you them again! I adore these balls of beauty.

It’s been a busy few days as we’re spending every spare moment outside in the countdown to the Garden Safari. The entrance to our property is through a gate in a mixed hedge at the top of the garden (we are on a slope). It’s an unprepossessing entry so we decided to give the hedge a good cut back, clear the area underneath it which runs beside the path and plant it with something pretty to look at. This is a job that has needed doing for some time…

I should have taken a 'before' shot, ie, before the hedge was cut and the edge cleared, but David got going before me!
I should have taken a ‘before’ shot, ie, before David cut the hedge and the edge was cleared, but you can get an idea of what it looked like from the mess on the path.
The earth here is very dry and so we've added a huge sack of compost (it didn't go very far).
The soil here is very dry and so we added a huge sack of compost. (It didn’t go very far.)
We've planted grasses, geraniums, bergenia, achillea, and erigeron – all plants that don't mind it dry and cope with baking sun and a bit of shade (fingers crossed).
We planted grasses, geraniums, bergenia, achillea, osteospermum and erigeron – all plants that don’t mind it dry and cope with baking sun and a bit of shade (fingers crossed). These were mostly plants that we propagated from others in the garden or grew from seed.
A big clump of bergenia that we transplanted with luzula in the background.
A big clump of bergenia that we transplanted from behind the shed with luzula in the background and geraniums in the foreground. The tree is a large maritime pine.
I hope the erigeron will take here as well as it has on the front steps.
I hope the erigeron will take here as well as it has done on the front steps.

As well as tackling this area, we’ve also started on project ‘Rebuild the Compost Heaps’…

This is what the compost heap looks like at the moment.
This is what the heaps look like at the moment: A Mess. There are two collapsing bays, completely overloaded and with potatoes growing out of them(!), and two plastic bins that we don’t use.
Wood and tools ready to go. We only got as far as making the two side panels. The plan is to have three bays, each roughly 1.2m square.
Wood and tools ready to go. In typical ‘taking on too much in one day’ fashion, we only got as far as making the two end panels.

The plan is to have three compost bays, each roughly 1.2m square, so we can use one to turn each heap to aerate it. I’ve read about all kinds of interesting ingredients and that it’s important not to have too much nitrogen-rich material. It’ll be so great to have home-made compost – it feels as though this is ‘proper’ gardening now. Does anyone have any composting tips?

My son's discarded walking boots. I had to leave them for quite a while before it was safe to move them.
My son’s discarded walking boots. We had to leave them for a few hours before it was safe to move them.

In other news… Our eldest finished his qualifying silver Duke of Edinburgh expedition yesterday – three days of walking (60km) and two nights of camping. It’s been an exciting few months for him but that’s it for a while now. In order to achieve the award, he has to concentrate on finishing his volunteering, physical and skill activities. Oh, and all his school work of course.

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I baked a couple of banana loaves earlier this afternoon for the after-school kitchen-raiders. If you usually eat all your bananas before they have a chance to be over-ripe, I recommend saving a couple to go past their best and use them to make this cake.

Dairy-free banana loaf
Makes 1 x 900g/2lb loaf 

The quantities double up easily for two cakes – I usually make two at
a time and use 2 medium or 3 small bananas as we don’t like them very banana-y. And you can experiment with types and ratios of sugars. Using all dark brown soft, or a mixture of light (or dark) muscovado and caster, also works well. You could also add a handful of sultanas or walnuts (but my youngest doesn’t like ‘bits’).

100g dark brown soft sugar
75g unrefined caster sugar
60ml olive oil (basic, not expensive or extra-virgin)
2 eggs
175g self-raising flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
2 small or 1 large over-ripe banana, mashed

Line a loaf tin with baking parchment or use a loaf-tin liner. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C.

Whisk the sugars, olive oil and eggs together in a large mixing bowl using a hand-held electric whisk. Do this for a couple of minutes until the mixture is lighter in colour and frothy. Sieve the flour and baking powder into the bowl and use a wooden spoon to fold everything in until fully combined. Add the mashed banana and stir until just incorporated. Pour the batter into your prepared loaf tin, pop in the oven and bake for 40–45 minutes. Stick a skewer into the centre of the loaf – if it comes out clean and the top is springy to the touch, the cake is cooked. If not, bake for a few minutes more.

Remove from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for a couple of minutes before turning out of the tin. It’s delicious eaten while still warm as the edges will be a little crunchy. It will keep for a few days in an air-tight tin, but ours usually disappear quite quickly.

 

Is it really almost summer?

On a day like today – rainy, windy, chilly, low light –it definitely does not feel as though it is almost summer. We actually resorted to lighting the wood-burning stove earlier; in previous years we’ve been in t-shirts and flip-flops by now. It’s June tomorrow, for goodness’ sake!

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Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ in yesterday’s late afternoon sunshine.

Yesterday was not so bad and we did manage to make some progress along the back-wall border. It’s taken us a while to clear the huge pile of rocks, weeds, tree seedlings and bathroom sinks(!) and David has been re-laying the brick edging and bits of the path. As the mortar has dried, I’ve been following along doing the planting.

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This border is an experiment… Rather than plant in groups of three or five, I’ve repeated plants every so often. I hope the overall effect will eventually be lush foliage with pops of colour – blues, oranges and reds. It might not work, it might look like a right dog’s dinner, but hopefully it’ll look lovely! I’ll show you the results over the next few months as the plants fill out.

I’ve used plants we’ve grown from seed (annual grasses Setaria ‘Lowlander’ and Panicum elegansTithonia rotundiflora ‘Torch’, snapdragons which I hope are  red); plants rescued and divided from elsewhere in the garden (blue or white geraniums, heuchera, and red achilliea); and plants we bought earlier in the month (Nicotiana, Geum ‘Tangerine’, Alchemilla mollis, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ and Aconitum).

I also re-planted an agapanthus that we’ve had in a pot for about six years. It didn’t flower last year, so we thought it might get a new lease of life in the ground.

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They’re meant to like having their roots restricted but this poor thing was so pot-bound – practically all root and no soil at all! There was no pulling it apart so we ended up sawing into four.

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Fingers crossed that it survives the shock and lives to flower again.

In other news… The children go back to school this week for the 8-week-long wind-down to the summer holidays. My daughter reckons she’ll be doing art and rehearsing for the school show as the SATs are over. Hmm, not sure about that. My middle son has end-of-year exams all week and has been revising hard this half term (much to our delight and astonishment). And the eldest is going to find being back in the classroom rather a shock after his trip to Barcelona and a half-term holiday lolling about at home. Here’s to a good week and more seasonal weather.

 

 

Reflections on the Chelsea Flower Show

 

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The World Vision garden, designed by John Warland and Howard Miller.

 

There is always something at the Chelsea Flower Show to make your heart beat a little quicker, to make you stop and beam with pleasure. It’s incredible to think that the show gardens are so transitory: they are built and planted over three weeks, admired by millions of people over one week and then deconstructed. They disappear and it’s as if they were never there. The effort (and money) involved in their creation is whopping but the results are often quite breath-taking and inspiring.

We were extremely lucky with the weather yesterday and I took a LOT of photos. I won’t bore you with all 250-ish of them(!) but here’s a small selection of a few of the floriferous sights from the gardens that quickened my pulse.

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The beautiful, romantic planting of the M&G garden, ‘The Retreat’, designed by Jo Thompson. That purple spiky flower is Lysimachia atropupurea ‘Beaujolais’. 
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Domes of clipped yew, crisp hard landscaping and frothy planting with grasses and perennials – green with pops of colour – in the Cloudy Bay garden, designed by brothers David and Harry Rich.
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The sharp shapes, crisp edges and sumptuous planting (foxgloves, geraniums, irises, euphorbias, aquilegias, geums) of the Homebase garden, ‘Urban Retreat’, designed by Adam Frost. This also had a garden room with rooftop garden, complete with a beehive, and a secret, shady area with a lush planting of hostas and ferns.
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A close-up from the Telegraph garden, designed by Marcus Barnett and inspired by the Dutch De Stijl movement. I loved the Carpinus betulus trimmed into cubes and the rich planting next to the water.
A striking, multi-stemmed Osmanthus x burkwoodii under-planted with Irish moss. Apparently it started flowering yesterday morning when the sun came out. This was on the Telegraph garden designed by Marcus Barnett.
Also on the Telegraph garden, a striking, multi-stemmed Osmanthus x burkwoodii underplanted with Irish moss. Apparently it started flowering yesterday morning when the sun came out. 
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One of the most genius and beautiful water features I’ve seen – a self-filling pond. The water rises very slowly and then suddenly, as though a plug has been yanked from the middle, it wooshes and swirls away in under 10 seconds. Very clever. It was on the Husqvarna and Gardena garden, ‘The Time in Between’, designed by Charlie Albone.
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I spied this planting on a trade stand (for greenhouses) and had to photograph the gorgeous colour combination of the lupins, irises, purple-podded peas, aquilegia and Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpurea’.
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Another glorious planting combination, this time on the Royal Bank of Canada garden designed by Matthew Wilson. It features drought-tolerant and sun-loving plants, super-curvy benches and a water feature that stores water (below).

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More purple planting (are you sensing a theme here?!) on Chris Beardshaw’s ‘Healthy Cities’ garden for Morgan Stanley. This garden will be relocated to east London after the show where it will be part of a community project.

 

 

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Moss balls. I waited for quite a while to get this photo without the shadow of a man’s head!

 

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My favourite smaller garden, designed by Fernando Gonzalez. I love the way the planting stands out against the flowing white stone (Jesmonite). According to the leaflet it was inspired by the Chinese landscape of mountains and river valleys.

 

In other news… My daughter is home from her school French trip (hooray!). Oh, I have missed her constant chatter and sunny disposition. Eldest son is due back at school from Spain just before midnight. It will be lovely to have a full house again. I’m off to make their beds and bake homecoming cake. Here’s wishing you a corker of a bank holiday weekend.

 

 

 

 

Risk assessment

Cassie at the top of the steps.
Cassie at the top of the steps.

 

Two gentlemen from the Garden Safari committee came to survey the garden yesterday. It was pouring with rain and blowing a gale – not ideal garden-viewing conditions. They looked with alarm at the piles of rubble, the steep steps, the new retaining walls with sheer drop, the pond, the trampoline and all the other ‘risks’ and made notes on their clipboards. ‘Have you got any poisonous plants?’, one asked. Oh crikey. I thought for a moment that they were going to strike us off the list and tell us our garden was too unsafe. But, no, it’s ok. We will have barriers and signs saying ‘Go no further’, ‘There’s nothing to see here’, or similar. We’ll be cordoning off the steep, terraced, ‘lots of work to do’ part and keeping visitors to the safer, flatter, and very luckily, better-looking part.

Steep steps, a sheer drop and part of the garden I've not introduced you to yet...
Steep steps, a sheer drop and part of the garden I’ve not introduced you to yet…
Work in progress and blue trug.
Work in progress and blue trug.

They were slightly aghast at our relaxed attitude. There is still so much to do! The date is fast-approaching! David and I looked at each other – ‘But it’s weeks away…’ we said. Perhaps we’re being over-confident but, as we’ve done so much since March, we’re sure there’s time to get it in a fit state for people to look at.

We spent the weekend clearing this border by the back garden wall. There's a plum and greengage (both requiring attention) and a Campsis radicans (trumpet vine) which we've cut back to encourage it to flower lower down. We've lots of plants to go in here.
We spent the weekend clearing this border by the back garden wall. There’s a plum and greengage (both requiring attention) and a Campsis radicans (trumpet vine) which we’ve cut back to encourage it to flower lower down. We’ve lots of plants to go in here when we’ve sorted out the edging.

There’s a whole heap of plants almost ready to go in to the newly revealed bed by the back wall and to fill gaps after the tulips have gone over. And the roses should be well into their flowering by then. Most of these were rescued from underneath overgrown shrubs in the front garden, so I’ve no idea what cultivar they are or what colour they’ll be! They’re in a sloping bed edged with box and also containing Miscanthus – a simple planting scheme but hopefully it’ll be looking pretty for the Safari at the end of June.

In any case, we’ll be serving afternoon teas with David’s scones, so it’ll be worth visiting just to sit and look at the sea and eat cake.

Box, roses and Miscanthus in the sloping bed by the path should be looking good by the end of June.
Box, roses and Miscanthus in the sloping bed by the path should be looking good by the end of June. It was full of white daffodils (Narcissus ‘Pheasant’s Eye’) earlier in the year – they lasted really well and their scent was gorgeous.
This one is flowering already.
This rose is flowering already.

 

Plants waiting to be moved to their new homes.
Plants waiting to be moved to their new homes.

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In other news… Two children are away this week – the youngest and the eldest (who is spending a lot of time away at the moment) are abroad on school trips. I’m missing them and the house is Very Quiet. Our self-contained middle child is tolerating the attention of both parents and enjoying having the computer all to himself. To take advantage of simpler logistics, we’re off to have a look at the Chelsea Flower Show on Thursday. I’ll try not to bombard you with too many photos.

The joys of spring

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Glorious May sunshine, a soft breeze, all shades of green, Queen Anne’s lace in bloom, birds singing their hearts out… This is the Kent countryside at its most promising, heart-swelling, springtime best.

 

It’s been a productive few days in the garden. The same can’t be said for indoors, though – there’s a huge pile of laundry, the food stocks are low (voracious children eating EVERYTHING), paperwork to deal with. But the sun is shining and at this time of year it seems daft to spend time inside when there is so much to do in the garden.

We went along to the local National Trust plant fair last weekend armed with a basket and big box to see what treasures there were. There were plenty and we brought a few home with us: Osteospermum, Polygonatum (Solomon’s seal), Acanthus spinosa, penstemons, Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle), Geum ‘Marmalade’, Nicotiana and some marigolds.

Our plant fair haul.
Our plant fair haul.

There is a particularly tricky area (doesn’t every garden have at least one?!) that is mostly shaded alongside a mixed hedge, and very dry. It’s also overrun with ivy and covered in a thick layer of discarded holm oak leaves from our neighbour’s (very large) trees. The plan is to clear it and plant shade-loving, or at least shade-tolerant, plants that don’t mind it being dry. We’re going to try the lovely grass Luzula nivea (Snowy wood rush), Acanthus mollis, Bergenias (that we’ve propagated) and the Polygonatum and A. spinosa from the plant fair. While some of these plants do prefer sun, they are tough and tolerant, so we hope they’ll bear up.

From left – Bergenias, Luzula nivea, Acanthus spinosa and Solomon's seal.
From left – Bergenias, Luzula nivea, Acanthus spinosa and Solomon’s seal (the tall plant behind just in view).
Polygonatum (Solomon's seal) – nodding stems bearing scented white flowers.
Polygonatum (Solomon’s seal) – a graceful plant with arching stems bearing white flowers in spring.

I’ve also planted some companions for the French beans. The beans, by the way, have been sulking rather. I think I must have been over-keen and planted them too soon. They were looking rather sickly until a few days ago when the warm weather perked them up and they started greening and growing again. Anyway, I’ve put some marigolds and Verbena bonariensis in the same bed and planted sweet peas to climb up the spare pole. I’ll also plant some of the Tithonia here – these are almost ready to come outside. All these flowers are great for bees and other pollinating insects.

Marigolds to keep the beans company. More flowers coming soon.
Marigolds to keep the beans company. More flowers coming soon.

 

In other news… My eldest returned from his DofE expedition with several whopping blisters, a sunburnt nose, a raging hunger and a rucksack full of smelly kit. It’s good to have him home (and it’s probably why we’ve gone through a couple of loaves, several packets of biscuits and a bunch of bananas in two days). Tomorrow the weather forecast is for rain, so I’ll pop to the supermarket then.