Saturday, 24 September 2011

Autumn at Malvern

Early morning in one corner if the Showground
It doesn't matter how often I return to gardening shows at Malvern, there is always something new to delight and inspire me. And this latest RHS Autumn Show is no exception. Situated in the lee of the beautiful Malvern Hills, every RHS show here provides a grand day out for the keen and dedicated gardener.

'Peas and Tranquility' designed by Stephanie Mucklow
A quick dash through the show guide, making notes, and then I move from location to location, assimilating ideas; amazed at the ingenuity of so many garden designers and exhibitors. This Autumn,  the organisers (TCAS - Three Counties Agricultural Society) again provided "a splendid mix for food and gardening lovers, and a window on the countryside". Two new areas were The Good Life Pavilion, which concentrated on 'the edible garden' and the 'kitchen garden stage' with a programme of cookery demonstrations using fresh produce, and The Orchard Pavilion, celebrating the importance of fruit growing - apples and pears which our British climate particularly favours.

'Somerset's Pride designed by Mark Walker
Show-garden designers are adept at cramming so many ingenious ideas into a very small space. Sometimes the concept is clever but the message not immediately apparent - personally, I prefer to learn from what I see knowing that I could adapt an idea within our own garden space. So I loved the little banked corner of Mark Walker's 'Somerset Pride' (best-in-show garden) depicting a rural farmyard plot, complete with rustic artefacts - and prominent edible dandelion growing alongside vegetable and arable crops. What first caught my attention was the clever use of old tyres as planters, cunningly sunk into the bank so they did not dominate. Mark specialises in 'garden retreats' and will be creating another garden in support of Macmillan Cancer Care at next year's Malvern Spring Show.

Skilful use of plants
and obelisk
Herb gardens somehow convey a sense of well-being and calm but can look flat and uninviting to the uninitiated. So the Cottage Herbery's use of a metal obelisk up which were trained runner beans was a touch of mastery. 'The Old Kiln Yard' - a corner of a much larger hop yard - was a joint effort, with Paul Taylor of Alchemy Gardens creating the landscaping and old building, and Kim & Rob Hurst providing the plants and planting, following their philosophy of recycle, re-use and re-invent.

Discover the beautiful orchards of Herefordshire
And then it was time for me to explore The Orchard Pavilion and the celebration of 'The Herefordshire Year of the Orchard'. Now I can't wait for next Spring to further investigate the orchards around Ledbury - whether in blossom or fruit, or during the summer in between. Ledbury Cycle Hire loan bikes whilst detailed directions along quiet lanes can be downloaded from 'Herefordshire Cider Route'. Planting fruit trees and saving orchards - or creating community gardens - is currently topical as open spaces disappear and gardens become smaller. I was fascinated by a talk I have just attended in the pavilion on 'The archaeology and historic landscape value of traditional orchards' given by archeologist, Neil Rimmington of Herefordshire County Council. Too much to report within this post, but hopefully I will find space to talk about the significance of fruit trees and orchards shortly.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Sunflowers - and Cupcake Heaven

So tempting!

I had no idea when walking into a room full of garden journalists a week ago that a tier of cupcakes was considered "the ultimate in contemporary cool", but a centrepiece of realistic sunflowers had me intrigued. The occasion was to announce seeds and plants that would be appearing in the 2012 Dobies of Devon catalogue, due for release at the beginning of October.

Sunflowers: they make you smile, and bring sunlight and joy to a garden on even the dullest day. Most varieties are tall and need staking but are nevertheless a delight to wild-birds (watch them pecking out the ripe seeds from a spent flower-head and de-hulling the seeds to get to the edible heart or kernel). 

I was captivated by a new Dobies sunflower introduction which I first spotted at the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show: 'Waooh' is a branching variety ideal for planting in a large container as it grows to only 60cms (24ins) in height and will flower from July until September. It will be available in 2012 as plants - so look out for it in the new Dobies catalogue - we'll post a link as soon as the order code is to hand.

'Waooh' will certainly be amongst my list of 'must haves' for next year.

Back to cupcakes and their apparently universal appeal. Ideal of course for family parties or special events, they are really easy to make and decorate, as I quickly discovered after buying a really enchanting book: ‘Cupcakes from the Primrose Bakery’, by Martha Swift & Lisa Thomas. I particularly wanted to recommend a book published in the UK (Kyle Cathie Ltd), and this could not be more English, or more entrepreneurial; for it is the work of two young mothers who started baking cupcakes for children’s parties and now run a flourishing business in Primrose Hill and Covent Garden, London.

These Lakeland cases really work
This is their story, with magical recipes for cupcakes and decorations. Mouth-watering and irresistible. As I’m more of a slab-fruitcake cook, I turned to kitchenware supplier, Lakeland Ltd, for equipment. You can off course buy pretty pleated paper cake-cases in supermarkets, but I particularly liked Lakeland’s pastel-coloured silicon cases: the cakes do not stick and slide out easily once cooked and cooled. Their silicon piping set is ideal for decorating. Both products are dishwasher safe - perfect.

So how about making  cupcakes to celebrate harvest-festival? Meanwhile of course, it’s too late for sowing or planting sunflowers, but we should still think of our garden birds - after the last two harsh winters, the wild-bird population has declined dramatically. 

This may be due to changes in our own gardening habits, but Dobies readers who follow our monthly e-newsletters will surely be aware of the importance of wild-life in the garden. In preparation, you can purchase bird feeders and food online by clicking here on the Dobies website. Don't wait until the cold weather arrives, action now - encouraging visitors throughout the autumn will be vital; and a life-saver for many birds - this thrush visited our bird table continuously throughout the terrible snowstorms we experienced earlier this year.

P.S. I'll be blogging 'live' from the RHS Malvern Autumn Show at the end of next week - edible gardens, the best of nature's harvest, a new Orchard Pavilion, the Festival of Perry, and so much more. See you there ??