Friday, 31 August 2012

Visits to inform and inspire

Gaining inspiration
All week, I’ve been editing a travel magazine, which you might think has nothing to do with gardening. But it has – for so many readers love to visit gardens, for ideas and inspiration for their own plots at home. Once urgent tasks in the allotment, veg beds and flower borders are done, you can perhaps feel justified in taking time off gardening chores and decide where to go. Where better at this time of year than gardens of the National Trust? There are so many aspects to discover, with volunteers often on hand to answer queries.

Shrub border at Barrington Court, Somerset
What might you be looking for? The WOW factor? (Autumn colours over the next couple of months are at their best.) Pleasant planting combinations? Colour co-ordination? Plant varieties? Ingenious frames or structures for supporting flowers and vegetables? Crop protection? One anticipates the need for protecting crops from the attentions of birds and other unwanted creatures, but we were startled to wake this morning to frost on the village green, ice on the wet roof and outdoor tomatos showing that Autumn has come early; in August! So frost protection is obviously necessary, and tonight I’ll be covering the tomatoes and squash with fleece, just in case.

Glorious perennials in a sheltered Cotswold garden
And I am also preparing a shortlist of properties I want to visit – or re-visit – locally. With many National Trust gardens undergoing restoration work (particularly some exciting vegetable plots), it’s always interesting to see how these schemes are progressing, particularly as many are planting heritage varieties of fruit and veg, as well as trialling new ones. And on the flower front, it’s always lovely to see that seedheads are not been cut down, for they add an extra dimension to decorative borders, and some are quite lovely.

Seedheads and Autumn colour on a sunny day in early September
There are hundreds of National Trust properties around the UK, and the beauty of their updated website is that you can search by county or by topic. Fascinating for instance if you wish to re-create a garden of an historic period, or visit those with spectacular kitchen gardens. And that’s even before you leave your desk!

Cabbages are king, so long as they are protected from pigeons
It’s an education I itself to walk around a garden; mid-week or weekends when there are usually family activities on offer as well. As the NT says of their new initiatives: “When it comes to self sustainability, we're leading the way at many of our kitchen gardens. From keeping rare breed chickens to growing organic Georgian prickly cucumbers, the fully working kitchen gardens on our estates are great places to witness the ‘plot to plate’ revolution. To experience a slice of the good life and learn how easy, fun and interesting it is to grow your own produce.” After your visit, it's good to sit with a catalogue and order what you want to try for next season - a fresh look at what you plan to do.

Writing down varieties in the squash trials in the
recently restored kitchen garden at Hidcote, Gloucestershire
Whether it’s veg, fruit or flowers, it’s essential to take camera and notebook / sketchbook with you to record what most interests you. A waterproof pen is a good idea, in case a drizzle sets in, and an anorak loose enough for a small digital camera to hang around your neck – again for protection from rain. If you are new to photography, any image will be more meaningful when taken as a close-up if you also take a ‘location’ shot to show it in context. Digital filing systems come in many guises and its your choice as to whether you file by garden visited or plant type – or on a prolific day, folders within folders. Once you have a library of images and notes to go with them, you might even consider starting your own garden blog. But that’s a topic for another post.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Notes from here and there

August Bank Holiday weekend has one juggling priorities. Does one spend the extra time doing garden tasks shelved ‘for another day’, or bottling fruit or making jam, or take the family out for the day to some lovely garden that is bound to inspire. Our own garden is in a sorry state of affairs, as we have been away for most of the summer – walking around it this morning, it’s hard to decide where to begin. Good news is that my pears are prolific this year and almost ready for making pear juice or a speedy sort of perry (like cider, but using pears) and the damsons are fast ripening ready for a jam-making sessions. The grafted tomatoes left to their own devices have taken over one raised bed but are producing ripe fruit as if there was no tomorrow. Sweet and juicy, and worthy of repetition next year.

Then there’s the artichoke. It’s the first time ever that I have actually managed to get these to flowering status. I have always wanted to grow these for they are such an architectural plant, attract bees once flowering and are great to sketch and paint. Mine are not for eating! I’ve tried growing them from seed and from purchased mini-plants and they are really so easy – except for the slugs when the plants are at a young stage. But that is my fault; neglect at the wrong moment spells disaster. In my gradual re-conversion of the whole garden, I plan a perennial vegetable bed; and these are ideal. Note to self to keep an eye on the slugs.

It’s also time to harvest the lavender. Such a useful plant with medicinal, culinary and craft capabilities, and a genus that can become an obsession. Not everyone can grow it successfully for it requires good drainage and full sun. With our clay soil, I have resorted to growing lavender in tubs and only grow the hardier varieties. Intrigued? Just published to whet your appetite is ‘The Lavender Lover’s Handbook’ by Sarah Berringer Bader. The author runs her own lavender farm in the USA and describes and illustrates 100 of the easiest varieties with tips for successful growing and suggestions for harvesting, cooking and crafting. Published in the UK by Timber Press, buy it online here.

When harvesting, clip on a dry sunny day when the florets are fully open – easiest to cut the whole stalk so you have a lavender ‘bouquet’ and then stand in a vase (no water) and allow to dry. After a few weeks, you can either cut the heads and pile them into a bowl where they will scent a whole room, or rub off the dried florets to make lavender bags from muslin tied with a pretty ribbon. And if you would like to discover how to make these little gift bags to hold your lavender sachets, the instructions are on the ‘Try This’ page in my Journaling blog.

And now for a bit of fun! Many villages are holding their annual flower show this Bank Holiday Monday (as we are in our village). Why not enter into the spirit of the event and decorate your own hat for the afternoon, as our Flower Show Chairman did one year recently? Ivy or traveller's joy is readily available, as are grasses and herbs. A veritable ‘green man’; and the red ticket means he won first prize for his efforts.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Garden Journaling - jump-start

Sketching seedheads in the car
In the Dobies of Devon e-newsletter published last week, I referred to starting a garden- or nature- diary during the school holidays. You can't say much in one paragraph, though I did suggest using an old map as a starting point, and sketching or collaging, adding napkin images; quite a lot of techniques in fact. So in this post are a few more prompts – visual images with explanations that should jump-start what you can do. Not knowing where to begin so often means you never do, or are afraid of that white page. Use offcuts of paper to sketch on, as I did above, when in the car visiting a National Trust garden somewhere.

Grandchildren creating garden scrapbooks
Starting with children (or grandchildren) is different, for one’s aim is to encourage a love of gardening and the outdoors. On a wet day, an easy way to begin is to cut up old gardening catalogues or magazines, and then paste them down into a fantasy garden, as my grandchildren did when visiting during the school holidays. Had they been my own offspring, living at home, we’d have kept this going until we had a complete scrapbook. And these days, with inexpensive digital cameras, they can photograph and record their own plot as well. 

Early experimental journal page
Inspiring others: I have been word-journaling since childhood – until recently more a diary than a sketchbook or illustrated journal. But gardening is such a VISUAL activity, when our beds and borders are perhaps organized more like a painter’s palette. So I began simple collage exercises, which I have to admit are not really for show, but used to demonstrate what I am suggesting you could also do. I had begun to sketch – not in the finished book but on paper, which I then cut and paste. I return again and again to my favourite plants (here ivy and spring bulbs) and often plant them in pots in the greenhouse to bring indoors when I want to paint them.

A working sketchbook with notes on supplies
By 2007, I had begun to create a proper sketchbook. I began to doodle on the page – loosening up. The sketchbook again comprised scrap papers, later bound into a book; the easy way to eliminate failures. I was finding that certain materials (inks, pens, paints, crayons, adhesives and even paper surfaces) were preferable to others. Was the gardening forgotten in all this? Not at all, the seeds and plants purchased regularly flourished as areas of the garden developed, too.

Moving on - words, sketches, embellishments
With confidence, I began to work direct into good-quality sketch books, combining images and words, embellishments (napkin motifs) with sketches. Our orchard inspired my ‘Sweet Fruit’ pages. And now, wherever I travel, I take my pen, little paint box and sketch book with me, and can be found working in strange places. It’s really a question of DOING, rather than wishing. Of not putting off what is a delight. Simultaneously, I was creating fabric pieces, and moved on to stitched booklets. But that’s another story.

Some items from my Open Studio exhibition (not just garden journals)
And then last year I was asked to participate in a village art exhibition and subsequently, a few weeks ago, in an Open Studio event (crammed into our tiny caravan). I had amassed quite a body of work, and was honoured to be asked to organize and teach some workshops on journaling. (You can follow my journaling blog and experiments here.) But without my garden as inspiration, none of this would have happened – and my love of plants began long before I could read and write. So fill your garden and use it as your own springboard.