Monday, 23 July 2012

The BEST Tree House in Oxfordshire

I recently took my plant stall to the annual Woolstone Open Gardens event.

Woolstone is a village near to where I live, it is just below the White Horse of Uffington Hill, and it has some (if you will excuse me for sounding like someone from an American sitcom)   fabulous gardens: and how's this for riches, one of them has two lakes! Two! And a copper birch - as opposed to beech - which is a tree that I had never seen, previously.

They have a good-natured competition in the village as to which garden has the best view of the White Horse of Uffington: I have never been able to decide, they are all lovely.

For the last four years I have been invited to take my Plant Stall there, which is always fun: Penny Spink kindly allows me to set up in the paddock at the end of her truly lovely garden, but of course this means that I don't get time to go round the gardens any more.

This year, as the weather was so horrible, I decided on arrival that it was too windy to even attempt to put my gazebo up.

As an aside, I don't know about you, but I always feel that a stall of any kind with a gazebo is a "proper" stall, whereas a stall without one looks like a car boot sale.

Ho hum.

Anyway, having allowed enough time to set up the gazebo, I had three quarters of an hour with nothing to do, so I used the time to have a stroll around Penny's garden, admire the walled kitchen garden, the Monet bridge - small scale but very attractive -and to see how the Tree House is getting on.

The last time I went up to the Tree Deck must have been five years ago, when the deck was complete but the tree house had only just been started, so I was interested to see how it looked now it was done.

Well, what can I say, it was adorable.

First you have to climb up the steep steps, to well above head height: through the latched picket gate with automatic closing hinge to avoid nasty step-back-to-admire-it-aaaaagh! accidents, and on to the deck.

The tree (an old willow) comes right through the deck, giving it a Faraway-Tree sort of feel: yes, of course, I mean that the deck has been built all the way round the willow:

The Tree House itself is thatched, and has a window and a proper stable door, as well as the little bench outside, for sitting out on sunny evenings:

Peeping in through the door, it has a painted kitchen with a range, pots and pans and so on:

And inside there is a little bed, a little chair, and a painted window with painted curtains and a painted view of the White Horse.

How lovely is that?

To see this for yourselves,  Mill House Garden is open under the NGS, on Wednesday afternoons through the summer, it may be best to phone first, here are all the details, and I can recommend it very highly indeed.

Penny Spink is a lovely lady, very enthusiastic and very hands-on with her garden: her son is an extremely talented garden designer and has contributed to several gardens in the village, as well as much further afield. We assume that he learned a lot about garden design from his mother's passion, and it's plain to see in his designs that he is quite keen on tree houses!

So there you go, do you agree that this is the bestest Tree House in Oxfordshire? Did you enjoy this article? 


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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Hedgehogs and Chickens

No, not together!

After writing recently about a close encounter with an adult hedgehog, guess what, I met another one the other day.

In a different clients' garden this time: the client and I were doing our "rounds", we go round the garden once a week with a clipboard, discussing jobs to be done, any problems arising, checking on growth, looking for damage and so on: it's a very interesting part of the day, even though it takes time away from actual work.

As we walked past the left-hand shrubbery (as it's known) there was a lot of rustling and scuffling in the Epimedium, and we could follow the progress of something fast and hefty, without being able to see what it was.

"Do you remember Potty-Time with Michael Bentine?" I asked the client, laughingly.

At the base of the Bird Cherry it appeared amongst the foliage - a very large hedgehog, with what appeared to be a mouthful of leaves.

"My word," exclaimed the client, "I haven't seen a hedgehog, let alone one that size, for years!"

So it's not just me - hedgehogs have been rarely-seen in recent years, but apparently they are enjoying the huge increase in slugs and snails that we are suffering, after two or three really wet, horrible years.

On a different day, in a different garden, I was moving plants into my newly-made nursery beds (Client to me, a week earlier: "I have a little project for you. I know you like a challenge.") which are at the far end of the chicken paddock. This means having to keep moving and replacing the electric fencing to keep the chickens out of the beds.

I turned my back for two minutes, to replace the electric fencing, and look what happened: chicken invasion!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Sezincote - what a little treasure

It was raining on Thursday afternoon, so I wasn't able to work:  but I decided to go and visit a garden instead.

"Garden visiting in the rain?" I hear you exclaim.

Oh yes, I love visiting gardens in the rain - or at least, in threatening weather, or cloudy weather, or slightly-drizzling weather.

For several reasons: firstly, the colours are always much better on an overcast day - in bright sunlight, you get a sort of technicolour flash, but you can miss the subtleties of the planting, and a lot of flowers are quite washed-out in very bright light. Plus you have to squint into the glare to see them all, particularly climbers or tall shrubs.  Secondly, although heat does bring out some scents, more are brought out on a damp day. Thirdly, and most importantly, you tend to have the place to yourself.

The first time I went to Hidcote, having heard so much about it over the years, it was a pleasant experience because it was a filthy day. I'd gone with my good friend Irene, who is an experienced garden-visitor, and we drove through some waterfall-quantity downpours to get there. On arrival, it had stopped actually raining, but the car park was pretty well empty, much to her surprise. We enjoyed our visit, it was a nice garden, and I could see why it was so popular. By the time we were leaving, the sun was breaking through and the car park was starting to fill up.

Repeating the visit by myself a year or more later, on a "normal" weather day, it was a truly horrible experience. The car park was packed, the paths were packed, the garden was packed, there were staff everywhere, but all were too busy to answer questions (not to mention the constant whine of power tools as they trimmed various hedges), I spent the whole time moving aside to allow people past, or squeezing past other folk, not to mention having to queue for every bridge or narrow section.

So now I actively choose to go garden-visiting on cloudy, rainy days: most open gardens keep their grassy paths very well trimmed, and if you take a big umbrella (and a spare pair of shoes, just in case) it makes a lovely peaceful afternoon. And there is the pleasant lack of guilt - I'm not skiving off from work, I am doing research visits on a day when I would not be able to work. ( Kindly imagine me smiling smugly at this point.)

So where did I go?

My plan was to visit Mill Dene Garden in the cotswolds: I'd read about it a couple of months ago, and had added it to my list of "gardens to visit on rainy days". I'd checked the website, obtained the opening days and times, and cost, and directions, had programmed it into my phone's sat-nav, so off I went. 50 miles later, I was greeted with a sign saying "closed for the whole of July."


They could have put that on the website earlier in the year.

OK, yes, I should have checked the website before leaving home.... will I bother to try again? Well, maybe sometime.

So, there I was in the cotswolds: where now? Aha, another garden on my list is Chastleton, only 10 minutes away on the other side of Moreton in Marsh. So I headed off that way, but as I drove down the Bourton on the Hill hill, the car in front of me started driving a little erratically.

"Aha," I thought, "they are looking for the Bourton House turning." I've been there before - not impressed, a garden full of dead-ends - so I wasn't going to re-visit that one. However, the car continued past their signs.

"OK," I thought, "must be looking for Batsford Arboretum, then, next turning on the left, no problem." I love the arboretum, but I wanted to see a garden today, I wanted flowers!! so I wasn't tempted to follow the car. However, again, the car slowed right down, but didn't turn left into Batsford: it turned right, instead.

"Wow, lucky them, they must live in that cute little lodge house."

As I started to pick up speed, glancing enviously at the lodge house (don't ask me why, but I have always, absolutely always, wanted to live in a lodge house. It's something about the big gates and having walls all around - I'm beginning to think that I might have just a teensy element of agoraphobia in my constitution?) and saw the words "Garden Open".

It took me a couple of miles to find a place to turn, but on getting back there, the signs said Sezincote House and Gardens, Open. So in I went, thinking that it sounded oddly familiar, but pleased to have found something new to go and visit.

After a considerable drive through parklands, including several cattle grids and yet another edible lodge house, I parked, paid and went in.

What a lovely place! I can highly recommend it. It's had some mixed fortunes - during the war it was used as a billet for Canadian troops - but is now back in private hands, and you would never guess from the lush, mature planting and truly enormous specimen trees, that it had ever been other than privately owned. Lots of water, several fountains, lovely stonework, lots and lots of plants.

Alas, not a single label: do you really want to hear my views on that again? In brief, why open your garden without labelling the plants?

Either people know what the plants are, and want to be reassured that they are correct: or they don't know, in which case they will want to know, either out of horticultural interest, or to purchase/avoid one for themselves, depending on what sort of monster it is turning into.

Anyway, despite the total lack of labelling, it was a lovely garden and well worth a visit. Lots of water, always a favourite with me: bridges with stepping stones to cross under, fountains, a formal garden, a wild garden which was clearly been done in stages: lots of areas of "work in progress" which, as a professional gardener, are always interesting to look at: huge great leaf-mould pens, cunningly hidden: an island, with not one but two bridges to get to it, and a viewing platform! How's that for cunning? I just wish that I had remembered to take a photo or two.. but if you google it, and look at "images", you can easily find them for yourself.

And surprisingly busy for a rainy Thursday afternoon, until I found out, in conversation with a very nice elderly lady, that it had been featured in the Telegraph's gardening section the previous week. Which one of my clients kindly hands on to me every week. Which I had sat and read at breakfast, just a day or two ago.

Do you know, there are times when I think I'm not quite as bright as I think I am...


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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Box topiary: cones

I'm always being asked about topiary: it's such a shame, it's one of those subject where I really need both hands and a specimen to explain it properly.

And I am always very happy to demonstrate: if you have topiary of your own, and you are nervous about shaping it, why not ask me to come and give you a lesson? As long as you live somewhere near Wantage, of course! Feel free to email me for details.

Right, topiary - and today it was Cones.

My client has a pair of variegated Box cones flanking a garden seat, and about twice a year they get a haircut.

As Mrs Beeton would have said (had she been a gardener) First, Take Your Cones. Here they are in all their fluffy glory.

The principle is the same as for any topiary: first take a good look at them, and decide if they are more-or-less the same size, or whether one is going to need more off than the other.

In this case, they were fairly even: variegated box tends to be slower growing than any of the plain ones, so they make good "permanent" topiary, as long as whoever prunes them is not prone to making major mistakes.

For these guys, I was using the usual garden shears: I started by straddling a cone, and cutting a swathe from top to bottom, following a straight line leaning outwards from the top. Christmas-tree shaped.

I then turn around to face the other way, and do the same again. Then I turn in quarters and repeat. By standing in the same pose, and just swivelling around the base of the cone, I find it quite easy to get the same angle on each side.

Once you have done that, you just have to join up the strips, taking care to make it a rounded join, as they are cones, not pyramids.

As always, I clip them fairly roughly, then stand back and check for bad angles, before doing them again more slowly and closely, to get the neat finish.

Then I "fluff" them up with one hand, to shake out all the loose clippings, and to see if there are any small branches that were hiding away from the shears: if so, they get clipped to match - either with the shears, or sometimes with the secateurs for real precision.

The pointy top gets a little special attention, as does the very bottom: I always try to cut these cones with a very short clear stem, and my client always tells me off, and says that she wants them to appear as though they are sitting on the ground. This is the sort of thing I find hard to remember, and I never take it badly if a client, who knows my weaknesses, reminds me before I start of any little details like that.

And here is the result:

Nice plump cones, not too geometrically straight-sided (my instructions usually include the phrase "egg-shaped" or "not too sharp" at some point...), and equal to each other.

Then all I have to do is clear up the mess, give them some balanced feed, and a can of water.

Job done! Oh, hold on, no it isn't, there are two balls further down the path.

They are supposed to get the same careful four-way cut as any other box ball, but they are planted right close under a pair of Rosa mundi, which are somewhat on the prickly side. Therefore I can't get myself quite close enough to them to do them properly, which is a constant annoyance. No matter how I arrange my legs, at some point I am twisting awkwardly,  and at some point I get scratched.

Which is all part of the joy of gardening, of course.

Still, with persistence, and by going down on hands and knees and finishing them with secateurs, we get a reasonable result:  the amount of debris beside them gives you an idea of how much, or how little,  I have cut off.

Again, clear up the mess, fistful of balanced feed, splosh of water, and away we go.

Job done!

By the way, if your spirit quails at the thought of doing cones freehand (bearing in mind that I have been doing it for years, and years, and years..) then the standard advice is to make yourself a frame or outline, out of wire, or garden canes tied together, to make the shape at which you are aiming.

Rather like the sort of wigwam that you make for growing runner beans, but smaller.

Then you slip that over the top of the fluffy topiary, wiggle it around until it is sitting straight, and until all the branches of the plant are sticking through it, then you cut off whatever is sticking through.

Remove your frame, and clip off anything that now projects beyond the shape.

Hmm, not the same without pictures, is it? I'll try it some time, and take photos as I go.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Willow Bridge: the taming of the beast

As you all know, the weather has been absolutely foul this year: apparently the wettest April since records began in 1912 (is that as far back as they go? Really?) and the wettest June in the same time, and even the wettest April-June.

It now looks as though we are going for the wettest July on record, too.

So much so that I have done barely 50% of the working hours that I normally do (strains of "hearts and flowers" in the background on the violin) which means that I am seeing big changes in the gardens which I normally attend weekly.

This one is a case in point:  in this garden there is a fairly boring wooden bridge, made of inelegant scaffolding poles with a wooden deck, and wooden beams for handrails. It doesn't look terribly pretty, so a few years ago when I was installing some willow fedges elsewhere, the client suggested that we use the leftovers to "cover" the bridge. I came in to work one day to find that they had simply divided the leftovers into equal numbers and rammed them into the bed of the stream, then tied them roughly to the scaffolding. Not quite how I would have done it, but it seemed to do the trick, and now they are well established.

Generally, throughout the summer, I spend maybe 20 minute a week weaving in the new growth to keep it under control.

This particular week, I arrived after missing a few sessions, to be asked on arrival to "do something" with the bridge, as "the guests can't get across it without getting soaked!"

When I saw it,  I immediately understood the problem:

So I set to work, and an hour later, without using string or secateurs, simply by weaving it, and taken from exactly the same position:

Bit of an improvement, I think. Nice dry guests, happy client. Result.

Monday, 9 July 2012


I saw a hedgehog the other day.

Not exactly ground-breaking news, I know, but I've been living in South Oxfordshire for over a decade, and this is only the second time I've seen one, other than squashed flat on the road

I was beginning to wonder where they'd all gone to.

This little fellow appeared in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon, and trundled past me at top speed, heading from nowhere in particular to nowhere else in particular.

When I leapt over to say "hello" (as you do) he actually did the traditional curling-into-a-ball, and hissing. Did you know that hedgehogs hiss? Yes, they make a lovely "kettle-boiling" sort of noise to warn predators away. I waited patiently, and within just a few seconds he'd decided that I was harmless, and continued on his way.  Perhaps the heat of the sun was too much for him - no, wait, this is June 2012, and we haven't really seen the sun this year. Perhaps he'd heard about the rain that was due, and was moving to higher ground.

Anyway, having done his duty by hissing at me, and having beaten me into submission (well, I didn't eat him, did I?) he trundled off at high speed, and disappeared into the flower beds on the other side of the drive.