Thursday, 30 April 2015

Leiden and gardening gloves

So how was Leiden?  Beautiful, a mini Amsterdam with canals and bridges and bikes.

It is a university town with something of the same feel as Cambridge, but with canals!

The place we stayed in was a real find, an apartment on the Nieuwe Rijn.  Ours was not the one pictured on this website but had two bedrooms, a fabulous bathroom and a small sitting area within the larger bedroom overlooking the canal.  Everything was spotless and comfortable, the bathroom was to die for and our host, Leon, made us wonderful breakfasts in the spacious kitchen overlooking a terrace.  Brilliantly situated, beautifully furnished and cared for and really nice people.  If you can get to Leiden I would really recommend it.

We rented bikes from our hosts and, having not ridden a bike for about twenty five years, I tested the cliche that you never forget and found it to be true.

The Keukenhof gardens were amazing,  not a garden in the ordinary sense of the word, although there were a few places which worked as a garden for me, but a living bulb catalogue.

Although I love tulips and identified some varieties which I shall try, this river of muscari armenicum, edged with tiny daffodils was one of the high points of the garden for me.

And looking out from the Keukenhof to the surrounding fields is extraordinary.

The place was full.  It was crowded and jostling and I often find that being surrounded by too many people inhibits my ability to look properly but somehow and surprisingly Keukenhof absorbed the people and there were moments of simple beauty.

We focussed most of the rest of our time in Leiden on walking to find a series of almshouses, known as hofjes.  These are tiny squares hidden away behind doors in the walls of Leiden.  They were built from the late sixteenth to the eighteenth century as places for the poor or the elderly to live and are all still lived in, most still by the elderly, some I think as part of the university.  They are tiny oases of calm and all are accessible to the public, if you can find them.

We drank a lot of coffee in all sorts of outside cafes including one on the top of a department store with fabulous views down over the canals.

And we visited the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in Europe outside of Italy, which has some of best glasshouses I have ever seen.

A great week.  Thank you to Joyce for her company and to Ian for holding the fort at home and visiting my father while I was away.

And just a quick heads up for a product review coming soon.  I don't do much of this kind of thing as I am not myself keen on much advertising in  my own favourite blogs.  I review books occasionally if they are ones I think you might be interested in.  I get lots of approaches for product reviews and generally just say no thank you.  This approach came from Mill Race garden centre and was just so pleasant and totally non-corporate, courteous and personal that I thought I would give it a go if I could find something to review that mattered to me.  I have chosen to look at some gardening gloves.  I don't know about you but I am constantly on the hunt for gloves that are not so thick and heavy that I find myself taking them off which defeats the object somewhat (a very frequent occurence) or so thin and flimsy that I put the index finger of my right hand through them.  Why the index finger?  I have no idea.  Do you find that gloves fail in the same way every time?  I must have half a dozen pairs with a hole in the end of the index finger of the right hand.  I don't know why I just don't throw them away.

So these are the three pairs which have been sent.  The last pair is the thinnest and lightest and I am already using them.  The others are a little heavier.  I will use each pair for a week or so on the same kind of activities, hand-weeding mainly and let you know how I get on.  I will report back!

Monday, 20 April 2015

Tulip fever

I am feeling excited, very excited.  I love tulips and have grown them in pots and in the ground here every year since we came over nine years ago.  On a cold grey February morning I was having a cup of tea with a friend and we got to talking about the bulb fields in the Netherlands and the gardens at Keukenhof.  My friend used to live in Leiden, right on the doorstep of all of this.  I confessed I had always wanted to go.  "Well we should, of course we should.  We should go this spring.  Let's look at flights.." and in half an hour we were booked with flights and accommodation.  Ian was happy to hold the fort here and with my dad.  For weeks it felt a bit pretend.  But it is here, now, today.  This afternoon we fly to Amsterdam.

Will it really look like this?

Or this?

Or this?

These images are all from but I will come back with some of my own.

This is exactly the sort of visiting I love.  My friend knows Leiden well and still has friends there.  We have rented an apartment and might well rent bikes.  I shall piggyback on her local knowledge and that will be marvellous.  I love a good hotel but I also love the way that a connection with place allows you to taste, just for a few days, what it might be like to live somewhere else.

Off to pack my bag.  Can't wait!

Friday, 17 April 2015

Revamping the cutting garden

I have always wanted a cutting garden.  I love flowers in the house but when I had small gardens I could never bring myself to cut the things which were making an impact in the garden in order to bring them inside.  Here, with lots of room and a blank canvas, I decided to make a garden specifically for cutting.  It would be full of sweetpeas, cosmos, foliage plants and dahlias with daffodils and tulips in the spring.

There were successes.  The dahlias were fabulous but only if I lifted them in the autumn and started them again in the greenhouse the following spring.  For the last two years I have tried to leave them in the ground but I am reluctantly concluding that on a high site in North Wales we do not have a long enough growing season for dahlias to get going without the boost they receive from being started off under glass.  Left in the ground they are only just beginning to flower strongly when they are cut down by the first frosts.

Sweetpeas have always been a great success.  My thin soil needs feeding furiously with compost or manure in order to be rich enough for sweetpeas and they need endless tying in but they are so beautiful and they flower for so long that a variety of strongly fragranced sweetpeas would be in any ideal cutting garden I designed.

And cosmos is fabulous.  It flowers and flowers and its foliage, unusually for an annual, is distinctive and charming in its own right.  I have grown all different kinds of annual cosmos but the pinks and whites are the most successful for me.

And yet, despite all these good things, the cutting garden is a problem area in this garden.  It lives in the productive part of the field garden, alongside the orchard and the fruit beds.  This makes sense.  It is the right place for it to be.  It is meant to be something like an allotment which also grows flowers. I wanted it to have some structure of its own when it was not full of flower so I planted two box crosses.  The intention was that each cross made four squares and that each square was planted with flowers.  The sweetpeas would grow on netting at either end of the bed.  The bed itself is about six feet wide and twenty foot long and when the sweetpeas are flowering the first three feet at either end of the bed are taken up with them and their supports.  Reading it here,the basic arrangement of the patch looks quite sensible and yet if you were to wander out to look at it you would find that it is quite a mess.

I think the main problem is that I have been tinkering with it, trying to make it less labour intensive and losing sight of what I made it for.  I planted up one square with achillea Goldplate and a Euphorbia polychroma, thinking that some perennials would make it easier to care for.  I don't think I have ever picked anything from either plant for the house but they are happy in the open sunny spot and grow well.  I got interested then in the idea that more perennials would look after themselves and, as time became squeezed by the demands of ill and ageing family, I looked around for others.  I planted a square with lupins.

They are far too big to pick for the house and although they are spectacular they don't really go with anything else easily.  Once they are finished the square is empty of colour and looks oddly unkempt.  And I have experimented with other perennials that I have felt ought to work like rudbeckia and let calendula self seed.  And gradually over the last couple of years when the cutting garden has had less attention it has become neither fish nor fowl.  The design depends on the patch being worked like an allotment.  It needs to be tidy and productive and picked from almost daily.  It doesn't work as an additional flower bed because it was never meant to be one.  It does not have the layering of flower and foliage, the contrast of forms, the attention to height, the expectation that you will look at it from a particular place or series of places.  It is meant to be a productive cutting patch and I need to decide whether I want to run it as such or give the space over to something else.

At the moment I am thinking that I will have another serious go this year at running it properly as a cutting patch again.  I will let the achillea stay but I will lift and clear everything else and plant it up with the things that I know work well and which give me endless jugs of flowers for the house and for the holiday cottage.  I have seedlings of sweetpeas, cosmos and euphorbia oblongata for foliage waiting in the greenhouse and I will see if I can produce enough time to prepare it properly and let it do its stuff.

And if at the end of the year I find myself scratching my head about it all over again, well perhaps I will decide that it should go back to grass and provide space for another couple of trees to add to the orchard.....

Thursday, 9 April 2015


The gorse is in flower, its warm cocunut sweet scent blows up from the valley as I walk down to the river.

The wood anemones are opening everywhere under the still bare trees.  I love these. I love their delicacy, the way they shiver in the slightest breeze, the way they turn their open faces to the sun.  Soon the leaves will be on the trees and the track down to the river will become a cool green tunnel.  I know I will like that when it comes but just now the track is clean and clear, full of sunshine and with open views into the fields.

My son and daughter in law's dog runs ahead but always pausing and checking where I am when the gap between us gets too wide.

Down by the river in the damper ground the strappy leaves of the wild garlic are pushing up.  There are no flowers yet so the smell of garlic is only released when I crush the leaves between my fingers.  I must remember to come down again very soon and do some foraging.

There are all sorts of things going on the garden, from little granddaughter, with a muddy smudge on her nose, loving being raced round in the wheelbarrow

to scratching hens,

the pompons of primulas,

and the singing red of the first of the tiny tulips.  What a lovely Easter it has been.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Stars and dinosaurs and knitting hillsides

The wind blew back in early this week and after a sunny, warm weekend I turned back inside.  There was a huge floor cushion to be made for five year old grandson to accompany his curtains.

There was more to be done on the project of knitting a cushion to reflect our hillside.

The colours reflect the different greens of the fields and the open hills.  The darker brown rows are the lines of hedges and bare trees and the gold is the bracken.  I have spent an hour or two weaving in the ends, an oddly meditative kind of thing to do, before casting on the other side and seeing what comes.

Then there was bread to be made before turning from the practical to the numinous.

There was Alan Garner's last public lecture to go to.  Alan Garner is a great writer and counts amongst his admirers the author Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury.  The picture shows Alan's house where he has lived and written all his adult life.  He was lecturing at Jodrell Bank, which is an unsettling yet fitting neighbour to his medieval house on its ancient site.    The lecture was accompanied by the release of this previously unpublished poem.

Across the field astronomers
Name stars.  Trains pass
The house, cows and summer.
Not much shows but that.
Winter, the village is distant,
The house older
Than houses and night than winter.
The line is not to London.
Unfound bones sing louder,
Stars lose names,
Cows fast in shippons wise
Not to be out.  I know
More by winter than by all the year.
And a night to kill a king is this night.
© Alan Garner
Erica Wagner, former Literary Editor of the Times, is putting together a celebration of the life and work of Alan Garner via unbound, which provides crowd funding of books.  If you are a fan of Alan's work have a look here and get involved.
And there were more and more flowers to pick and eggs to eat.

What a satisfying mix of the things you can hold in your hands and the things that you can't.  A good week.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Spring cleaning the shepherd's hut and welcoming the daffodils

Daffodils sing of spring and spring arrived this weekend in a glow of sunshine and yellow flowers.   I have been out in the garden all day long, spring cleaning the shepherd's hut and tidying and weeding everywhere. Spring hits me like this every year, giving me a great rush of energy and sending me outside at every opportunity.

All the furniture came out of the shepherd's hut, except for the built in sofa which folds down as a bed and everything was laid out on the grass.  I swept the hut out, wiped down all the woodwork and cleaned the windows.  Then back it all went.

Rugs were beaten, curtains shaken out, and the woodburning stove cleaned out.

Today I painted the door and tomorrow I will rub down and paint the windowframes, as long as it is dry.  I have a yen to change the cushions and the rug and to move from a palette of soft creams, pinks and greens to something in blue and yellow.  It must be spring!

As a break from cleaning and weeding I wandered around looking at the daffodils and seeing what is out.

The first daffodils to come out up here are the Welsh daffodil, known as the Tenby or narcissus obvallaris.  These are a small, upright daffodil with neat, slightly glaucous foliage.  we have hundreds of these, spreading around the trees in the little orchard.  I know that I planted five hundred bulbs and I am pretty sure they are spreading of their own accord these days.

Following close on the heels of the Tenby daffodil is February Gold.  I love the slightly swept back shape of the flower.   These crowd behind the swing in the field.  As time goes on they will be joined by Thalia, a creamy white daffodil, and Sweetness, a jonquil type with a delicious sweet scent.

Jack Snipe is coming out along the side of the drive and little Tete a Tete is blooming in the kitchen garden.

I have recently started to grow narcissus pseudonarcissus.  This is the British native daffodil, the dancing daffodil of the Wordsworth poem.  It is a graceful, delicate little daffodil, less sturdy than the Tenby.  So far these have not begun to settle and spread for me but I hope they do.

These are one of my favourites, Telamonius Plenus, an old double daffodil which has grown in cottage gardens since the early seventeenth century.  Later there will be narcissus poeticus, Pheasant's Eye.

This is an image from the RHS.  It will be a few weeks before mine are in flower.  I love how different the later flowering daffodils are from the early ones: pale rather than bright and with an open face rather than the hanging head or swept back petals of the earlier ones that I grow.

So for now it is daffodil time up here.  Even though there are so many I find myself visualising even more.  I think maybe there should be more up by the shepherd's hut....