A long overdue online welcome to George Watson, a former head gardener who has been working for us part-time since early summer. Left pretty much alone during the driest season for eons (even here) George managed to keep most of the hundreds of young plants in pots alive and has taken on all manner of jobs we had managed to postpone indefinitely. Sadly we say goodbye to him for the winter, but he lead a team of volunteers (thanks Jamie, Aiko, Lisa & Simon) this weekend in a blaze of walling and woodland clearance. Haste ye back!
Gardening as I do in some wet mountains, I was particularly appreciative of Kylemore Abbey in Connemara (Ireland) which I recently visited. Now a school and nun community, the recently restored 6 acre walled kitchen garden is awe-inspiring both in and outside its walls. The scale is vast, built originally by some nuts Victorian gentry who only occasionally visited, and it included dozens of glasshouses for wet weather walking, pineapple beds and lots of now-restored island beds of gaudy bedding. All framed by the most romantically gloomy mountains.
Have a look at www.kylemoreabbey.com/garden.asp for more...
Whilst I have left Lawson Park in the safe hands of our new gardener George, I’ve been spending three weeks in rural north-west Japan, on an arts project within the Echigo Tsumari Triennale exhibition. It’s really the first time I’ve been outside of Europe to a place with so much horticultural novelty. To the European eye, one of the most painful things to witness here is the regular maintenance of mountain paths, which requires hacking down overgrown acers and other rare-to-us trees by the dozen.
Our village, Toge, produces Japan’s finest rice, apparently due to abundant summer rain and heavy winter snow which stays put for months. And boy can it rain – and coming from someone who lives in the Lake District and was brought up on the west coast of Scotland, that’s saying something.
The land below the velvety forests is steeply terraced, with small-ish, spring fed rice paddies divided by ditches and banks of verdant wild undergrowth. On closer inspection this undergrowth is made up of some recognisable plants: macleaya cordata (plume poppy), aruncus diocus, various small bamboos, a kind of carex grass, vines and the occasional orange lily. Further afield one drives past what look like Madonna lilies also growing wild – large stems of showy white blooms. Morning glory, blue hydrangea, phlox, rudbeckia and daisy-like coreopsis seem common on the fringes of gardens, as are various crocosmia and species gladioli – I’m not sure if these are native or not.
Gardens here rarely have dividing boundaries, and lack many of the characteristics one associates with Japanese gardens traditionally: it’s a farming community and I guess they have no time for fiddly bonsai. However, each house has a rectangular or sometimes corner-shaped pond right by it, usually filled with waterlilies and carp.
Highly productive vegetable gardens are sited on level areas close to every house - there are few areas of useful land unused – even small triangles of ground by roads are filled with vegetables. The soil seems to be clay subsoil with sandy topsoil. The dominant crops are aubergines and cucumbers though there are many unfamiliar shoots and stems in between that I would like to identify.
Maintenance-wise, the fight against weeds must be a depressing task: horsetail and others grow inches per day and only the tomatoes and aubergines are mulched with plastic. I expect the banks between terraces are allowed to grow wild to prevent subsidence, and much of the leafy growth is eaten too. I was curious as to why the weeding I have seen is done by just removing the top growth with a machete, and I suspect it’s both for eating and because root removal would encourage land subsidence in the next heavy downpour. Composting seems not to happen here and I am curious as to why, as I’d expect the humid heat to enable very fast decay. The only top dressing I have noticed looked a lot like dried rice husks sprinkled around young plants – as I haven’t seen any snail or slugs I’m not sure what this does.
By our house and in the most appallingly wet conditions, a noted Japanese landscape architect has designed and installed a rather bizarre garden which marries European-style flower-planting with Japanese hard landscaping. Some noteable features include chicken-wire gabions filled with pebbles as pond-banks, heavily charred hardwood as a building and water feature material (I’ve read this is believed to preserve the timber), and a high stacked log wall. The quality of the materials is very high, and they are used very simply, however the workmanship of the installation is rather poor - this might be because it’s a ‘show garden’, but there’s a real sense that it could all slip off down the hillside during the next downpour.
This, dear reader, is destined THIS YEAR to become a new kitchen garden! It's an area around 60m x 40m, gently sloping south west and previously smothered in bracken. Our produce will be grown in raised beds with imported topsoil , and we are optimistically layering cardboard between what remains of the bracken and the topsoil to attempt an organic eradication of the pest....Watch this space for news on whether that works....
Since this photo was taken, the lucky beehives have received their own levelled off area (though their honeycomb shaped shed remains as yet unfinished though tres rustique) and two massive compost bins have been installed. However, a bizarre local famine of the planned larch poles means we will be sadly using more 'finished' planks to make the beds, though this will no doubt give the are a more stylish appearance.
What was it the contractor said when gazing down at it ?
"It's never gonna be Kew Gardens, is it?"
Au contraire, mate!
I know this is strictly off-topic, but a jaunt over east-ways to North Yorkshire a few weeks ago yielded some horticultural delights that should not be missed:
Firstly is 'Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden' which I only found because we pulled up right next to it for a quick on-the-road kip. It's a charming old-style rock garden, privately maintained largely and free to visitors dawn to dusk, with a checkered past which even includes garden gnome marketing. A few rare plants suvive and there's an exquisite atmosphere of faded, eccentric grandeur about it all.
Directions on getting there and more info are here at
Next, was this fabulous conifer hedge, somewhere near the afore-mentioned garden. What I like so much about it is that although it's clearly formed out of conical-shaped conifers, these individual outlines have been re-instated into the hedge by its owner - almost like carving.
Finally, we detoured near Middlesborough to the magnificent Guisborough Allotments which we spotted from the road, a huge sprawl of colourful plots, each with unique and fascinating idiosyncrasies - buildings, fancy poultry, brassicas, fencing...Long may the developers stay away from this place, it's a remarkable feat of human ingenuity.
It's no secret that the Easter break can be a challenging time for us locals. I solve the inevitable road rage threat by not going out, and instead spend the weekend getting some bits of the garden ship shape. This doesn't entirely remove me from the tourists, as our garden is bisected by a bridle-way down to Brantwood, a favourite spot for speeding mountain cyclists to stop for a breather.
Terrible recent weather and a broken digger have severely delayed our new kitchen garden (I have had to pray for the fruit bushes to survive in their box, and packed the asparagus in damp sand), so instead I'm moving my ghastly wet bits of carpet around the new woodland garden (weed-removal the organic way) and planting some large areas around new trees with a mixture of Deschampsia cespitosa and Tellima grandiflora (both indestructible in other areas of the garden) in naturalistic swathes. I am hoping to avoid what sometimes afflicts woodland /shrub gardens here in the Lakes -a kind of bitty-ness where you clambour around steep ground dotted with specimen plants - by underplanting our new trees with very large numbers of a very limited palette of plants - mainly grasses which I have propagated.
I can't wait for the area to get growing so that the pathways I have left between the palnted areas can really take form - and I can see if what I think is going to work, will!
After an incredibly harsh March with several weeks under more than a feet of snow, much of the garden is showing wear and tear bordering on carnage: brown eucalyptus leaves, singed ceonothus, crocus (those that survived the rodents) prostrate and sodden after days of torrential rain.
However - like all gardens - on closer inspection there is much to celebrate: Some other crocus - later ones- are creamy and fresh amongst the vivid pink heathers (Vivelli & March Seedling), caltha palustris (white form) is peeping out, semiaquilegia and sedum are showing greyish knobs of growth, and in the polytunnel everything is leafy and my beertraps are full of baby slugs. Elsewhere in the Lakes the tourist-magnets, the daffodils, are beginning to show but mine - newly planted narcissi 'February Gold' on the whole - are ignoring their named destiny as yet.