It took the garden I created for my sister to appear in this month’s Period Living for me to finally get my act together. Her house and garden conversion won the Best Renovation Award as part of the magazine’s 2017 Readers’ Homes Awards. Mention was made of the garden along with photos (although it poured with rain on the day the photographer came so the outside shots are a bit soggy!) And I get a name check. And would have got a website address included.
Except for I didn’t have one. Website that is…
But now I have. And this is it. Or at least the link above will take you there. And it’s all my own work. Words, pictures, creation of website using nifty WordPress template. And of course the gardens. There may not be many of them (yet!) but the gardens are all my own work.
A few weeks ago I started work on a new garden. All very exciting. But it has reminded me that I never got round to writing a post about the progress made in the garden I worked on last year. So here is a quick catchup to give you the full story.
Let me remind you of where it all started. Remember the gorgeous 17th century cottage belonging to my sister, (see Time for a Cunning Plan) which needed a new garden to go with the new extension that added a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and saw a transformation of the original layout.
It all looked pretty chaotic when I first arrived on the scene.
Front Garden 1
Front Garden 2
The courtyard garden!
Work in progress
View across new wall to garage
Bit of a mess!
New bedroom wing in progress
Ah… the courtyard garden!
But slowly the courtyard garden began to take shape.
Marking out the plan
Digging out the beds
Even more digging!
Laying the paving
More paving laid
We started the planting in January.
The planting begins
Ilex instead of box balls
Start of structure
Green shapes against brick
A post stands in for the prunus…
Planting for shade against the house
The yew hedge – which will eventually act as an evergreen wall around this part of the garden – went in in February.
The pergola got built.
The Big Green Egg (that I have been wanting to put into a garden ever since I saw their stand at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago) arrived and was put into place.
My sister (who happens to be my twin) is a cook, food writer, star of screen and stage (stage was the village pantomime when we were sixteen… but the tv bit is more recent! See her blog for more details.) Food is in her DNA, so an outdoor kitchen was an absolute must.
We created an orchard area, planting it with apples, crab apples and damson to go with the wonderful old quince tree, accessed through an archway which will eventually be draped in one of my favourite roses, Rosa Adelaide d’Orleans.
This year has seen the addition of a small vegetable and cutting garden.
By last summer the courtyard garden was looking in pretty good shape.
Things in the cottage garden on the other side of the house were looking a lot better too.
Although not when we started!
The task for the area at the entrance side of the house was very different from the courtyard area. The courtyard garden is the more formal area, with a variety of functions which required careful planning of the space. The plan for the garden on this side was more relaxed. Before we started, this area felt more like a corridor than a garden. By the time the weather had had its way with us it was a corridor of mud.
The requirement was to provide a seating area to make the most of the morning sun, create a lawn, make the space feel wider with a ‘journey’ through separate areas, and give the eye something to enjoy from inside the house. A particular challenge was to take account of the spring that runs through this side of the garden and gives the house its name. Planting choices had to include plants that were happy to have their feet in the damp.
The terrace reused the old brick from the original seating area, and the space around it was redesigned to provide a lawn surrounded by beds filled with more relaxed planting than in the courtyard garden. The intention is that eventually the lawn and terrace will feel tucked into the planting. A gap between the beds at the top end of the lawn leads through into a wilder area where the trees sit in longer grass with spring bulbs at their feet. A path lined with stone leftover from a wall taken down by the drive leads up the side of this area to the gate into the churchyard.
Here are a few before and after images so you can properly appreciate the transformation.
Bit of a mess!
View from the kitchen door
So there you have it. It was such a gift to be able to design a garden for my sister, even more so because I get to see how it is developing and hear how much enjoyment she is getting from it.
And I’m really excited to start on my next project, which came out of my new client seeing the work I had done at Spring Cottage.
So it looks like I may be turning into a garden designer after all!
It’s been another damp and drizzly week in the garden. Until yesterday, when there were proper blue patches between the clouds, a bit of proper sunshine. And for the first time this year I was able to go outside and do a proper shuffle.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the garden shuffle? It’s one of my favourite things: the slow meander around the garden, usually with cup of tea in hand, not doing, just seeing. It’s when I take the time to properly look at what is happening out there, without feeling I have to do anything about it. (Apart from pulling up the odd weed!) My favourite time to shuffle is first thing in the morning. Ideally the temperature is warm enough for me to go out in my dressing gown. Although we’ve got a while to go before that happens!
Yesterday the sunshine didn’t appear until the afternoon, so a dressing gown would have been entirely inappropriate. But still it was warm enough to wander, and within minutes of being out there, cup of tea and me were shuffling in perfect harmony.
There’s more to see than you might imagine. Snowdrops are opening, yellow aconites are bright against the brown earth under the ash tree by the drive, the unfolding heads of the hellebores are rising up out of the leaf mould.
And yesterday the low sun of afternoon was playing wonderful tricks with the leaves of the Asplenium scolopendrium fern.
This is the week that the green shoots have really started to get going, pushing up all over the place, and as I shuffle I’m thinking about all the bulbs I planted last autumn. (One of the great joys of bulb planting when your memory isn’t what it used to be is the element of surprise!) It’s coming back to me that I crammed the recently re-edited centre bed with tulips, choosing my selection after reading an article in Country Life by Tom Coward at Gravetye Manor… but what were they? I can’t remember and I can’t find the article.
There are the narcissus I planted under the new hornbeams in the field garden, selected following advice from The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley that was my bible last year and will be again in 2017. There are more alliums in the front garden, a row of muscari under the espaliered apples in the vegetable garden. Probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten about. I can’t wait to see what comes up!
And this week I’ve been writing lists of plants to buy to fill the gaps I didn’t get round to last year, and I’ve ordered my dahlias, (one of my choices is Otto’s Thrill after seeing it at Petersham Nurseries), and I’m sorting through my seed packets, and watering my pelargonium cuttings. And next week there are roses and wisteria to be pruned, and I’m hoping for another dry day so that I can tidy up the apple trees.
And finally, I’ve been getting on with Assignment 3 for the Photography course I’m doing with mygardenschool. One of the topics set for us was still life sequences, shooting the same subject from different angles. This is a shot of a moth orchid I submitted – now I’m waiting for feedback.
Not very much snow. But still a chance to see the bare bones of the garden. Which is as good a place to start this year of weekly posts as any.
But before I embark let me fill you in on a bit of background.
For those who may not know the history of this garden, I should explain that sixteen years ago it wasn’t… a garden that is. What it was was an awkward triangle of about half an acre of sloping lawn surrounded by stock fencing. The kind of space you look over and out of rather than into. It was the garden developers leave for you when they’ve finished. Need I say more!
And this is how it stayed for a couple of years. Until the time came to ask for help from my mate Judes; who happens to be a garden designer of the very best kind. One of that rare breed who understand space and function and form.
Under Judy’s expert eye the contractors got going and the garden began its transformation. Once the landscaping was done it was time to get on with the planting. In a haphazard, unplanned, suck it and see kind of way that taught me a great deal about what goes where and what doesn’t, I bought plants I liked and put them in the ground. Which gave me an unimagined amount of pleasure, along with a fair amount of pain, as things outgrew their allotted spaces, self seeded, spread, grew this way when I wanted them to grow that, looked wrong, failed to thrive, died; in fact did all those things that plants do when you add a bit of sun and rain, and wait to see what happens.
Because when I started out as a novice gardener I was under the impression that you just planted things and left them to get on with it. I had no idea that shoving a drought loving plant into my heavy clay soil was like uprooting a camel from the Sahara and expecting it to thrive in Greenland. Plants know what they like and I learned that trying to force them to do anything different is an expensive mistake.
As for leaving them to get on with it. I realise now that this is akin to believing that the hair on your head should be left to grow as nature intended. Without interference. Now there may be many who are completely fine with this approach, but I’ve always been a seek out a good hairdresser and visit them regularly kind of girl. Plants need to be shaped, fed, nurtured. They need to be re-assessed and re-styled every now and then. It’s not that I don’t love natural. I just think it needs some help along the way.
Two years ago, with the benefit of all the years of hard work in my own garden, along with garden visits, trips to flower shows, books read, garden magazines thumbed, catalogues poured over, conversations had, and my garden design course under my belt, I took a step back, looked at what was in front of me, and realised that it was time for a major re-edit.
I went through the garden bed by bed, plant by plant, getting rid of any that didn’t please me. I drew up proper planting plans for the main beds. I reworked the area on the other side of the hedge which had been field, and was now home to a very uneven lawn, greenhouse and vegetable garden.
Over the past couple of years I’ve rejected, replanted, moved, cut back and generally overhauled the entire space. This year I hope to see the fruits of my labours start to deliver. Which is another reason I want to keep this blog/diary.
This week the garden is resting, for a couple of days slumbering under a light blanket of snow, with the odd downpour thrown in for good measure, and today a burst of winter sunshine. I’ve been out there with my camera. This is the time when the structure of the garden is revealed. Now is when I can see if it’s working. And I’m pleased to report that the skeleton is looking pretty good.
At this time of year it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing going on in the garden. But when it seems that there isn’t much to look at, you just have to look a little harder!
It’s been brought to my attention that the title of these posts is a little misleading. Because the reality is that we haven’t actually done that much wandering. And even though we’ve been following the satnav, we’ve quite often been lost!
In the old days, when we found ourselves in the middle of somewhere that wasn’t where we wanted to be, there was a lot of trying to make sense of road signs and rows about which way to turn. ‘Left or right…? What do you mean, you’re not sure? You’re the one with the map.’ It’s a very different experience these days. But the rows are still a possibility. Which is why having friends in the car with us is a very good thing. When it comes to keeping our marriage intact!
On this trip, thanks to a combination of the satnav and some good old fashioned map reading, we’ve managed to find our way to Paunat and Le Moulin Neuf – which is where you will find us on the third morning of our trip, eating breakfast on the terrace in the sunshine. And is most definitely where we want to be.
Fresh fruit, delicious croissant, good coffee – and as an added bonus we get to catch up on a bit of local gossip with the owner Robert, who entertains us with stories about the tensions and squabbles that go on behind the picture book facades of some of the villages in the area.
And the idyll goes on after we leave. Because if there was ever a day for breathtaking scenery, today is it. Everywhere we look there are chateaus perched on wooded hillsides, village houses built into rock faces, stone cottages looking out over meandering rivers. I have never seen so many lovely buildings crammed into one bit of staggeringly beautiful countryside.
Within a few miles of leaving Paunat – thinking that nowhere could be prettier – we drive through Limieul with our mouths open. On another perfect morning the houses of this lovely town are glowing in the sunshine. Built into the hillside, they face out across the sparkling blue waters of the Dordogne. It’s very tempting to stop and explore. But we’re on a mission and not to be distracted. We’re heading for the Chateau de Marqueyssac.
This famous chateau is built on the top of cliffs looking out across the Dordogne valley. It’s a stunning building in a stunning location with a stunning view. But most stunning of all are its gardens. Over 150,000 box bushes cut into fantastic shapes and structures. It’s a struggle to find words to describe it. All I can say is that, even if you aren’t interested in gardens, you have to go.
After we leave the gardens of Marqueyssac we head for Sarlat, a lovely town with a beautiful old centre. But by now it’s scorchingly hot, and the town centre is teeming with people, and the place we choose for lunch is ok but not great. So we don’t stay long. Back in the car and now we’re heading for our third stopover, in Montreal just south of Carcassonne in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
We’re taking the motorway for a while and, as we leave the Dordogne and head south, it’s amazing how the mood and attitude of the drivers around us seems to change with the countryside. Is it because we’ve got a car with English number plates, could there be an extra amount of anti Brit feeling post Brexit? Whatever the reason, as we pass Toulouse there’s a definite feeling of aggression from other drivers, and we’re rather relieved to leave the motorway and drive between fields of sunflowers to the hillside town of Montreal.
Another night, another completely different stopover. From what we can see of Montreal it seems pretty without being a showstopper, although we’re learning on this journey not to judge a book by its cover. We park in a side square and roll our suitcases up a side street and into narrow alleyway where a wooden door in a high stone wall bears a sign that reads Camellas-Lloret. Knock on the door and it swings open and there stands the owner Colin, glass of rose in hand.
Colin is a larger than life South African, married to Annie, who is from America and is petite and lovely, and between them they run this lovely B & B with great flair and charm. Colin shows us in to a village house on several levels built around a lovely courtyard.
This place is quirky and modern and super stylish. We feel like we’re walking into the pages of Elle Decor. There’s a room on the ground floor crammed with lovely things for sale for house and home, a winding staircase up to bedrooms on the first and second floor, an elegantly furnished salon. Our rooms are a good size with futon beds and decent bathrooms.
We leave our bags and head out to join Colin for a glass of rose on the terrace. Turns out Colin is an organiser par excellence. While we sip our wine he tells us to leave everything in his hands, that he’s booked us a place for dinner that we’re going to love, that he can help us with suggestions of where to go and what to do. When we tell him that we’re on our way to Barcelona the next day, we discover that he used to work there and knows the best way to get there, the best places to stop on our way, and the best places to go to when we arrive.
Now it’s quite possible that there are people out there who might feel a little overwhelmed by this degree of intervention in their travel plans. And we did get back into the car that evening to drive to Colin’s recommended restaurant feeling a little uncertain about having our lives stage-managed to quite such an extent. But all our doubts and fears were laid to rest the moment we arrived at La Rive-Belle. Because it was unique and extraordinary and wonderful. And we would never have found it without him.
On this warm summer’s evening we drove out of Montreal for about fifteen minutes, turned off the main road, and drove along a track between fields of mown hay into the middle of nowhere. Could this be right? Were we lost… again? We came to a stretch of quiet water. We had reached our destination. And a little shack of a restaurant with a terrace right on the edge of the Canal du Midi.
We had arrived at La Rive-Belle at Ecluse de Herminis. The tables and chairs were basic and a little unsteady, the menu was limited, there was only one person serving. But the tables were full of locals, the sun was setting over the water, and the food was excellent.
So another great day, with more unforgettable experiences to add to the rapidly growing collection. And tomorrow we head through the Pyrenees into Spain.
I come home at the end of September after a month away, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, and full of creative energy. And wondering what to do with it. But before I’ve had time to put away the suitcases and pack up the summer clothes, a project lands in my lap. Completely out of the blue. And it’s a cracker!
The project is to design the garden for a house on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, a stunning 17th century cottage which is undergoing a transformation and needs a garden to go with it.
I couldn’t ask for a better job. But it’s a big deal for me. My first proper project for someone other than myself. Which feels pretty mega… And a little bit scary. But there’s no time to ask myself if I’m up to it. Because it has to be done immediately. Like right this very minute.
The situation is that my sister, (who owns the stunning 17th century cottage), has found herself in a bit of a fix. Along with writing cookery books and becoming a bit of a media superstar in the past couple of years, (which you can read all about at https://trufflehound.wordpress.com/) she has been up to her eyes with the planning and construction of an extension for her newly purchased home. She’s adding a kitchen, and a bedroom and bathroom linked by a glass walkway to the original house. The builders have been hard at work since June.
This project started a couple of years ago, when architects were called in to help turn a lovely but impractical house into a lovely but practical one. The lovely but practical house needed a lovely but practical garden to go with it. At the time I was still on my garden design course, and not in a position, time-wise or experience-wise to take on such a challenging job. So my sister briefed other garden designers, and they visited the site and drew up plans for her.
But now it comes to the crunch. Because, as tends to happen with these things, plans changed and the build cost went up. Which meant the original plans for the garden were no longer viable. The builders are at the stage where they are ready to start on the outside space. But the original plans can’t be achieved within the new budget. Time to call for the cavalry. In this instance the cavalry is me!
We’re talking about the perfect country cottage here: the oldest house in the village, tucked in between the church and the school. The garden folds itself around the cottage like a security blanket. There’s an orchard and a well and an old brick path leading into the churchyard. It’s very very lovely.
Or rather… it could be very very lovely.
But the cottage was a weekend retreat for the previous owners, and, both inside and out, shows the lack of attention that goes with people not spending much time in it.
The architect and builders are doing a great job of turning the building into something amazing. Now it’s time to do the same for the garden. But time is what we have very little of, so I take the site survey away with me, and I get going, and over the weekend I come up with a solution to the most pressing requirement, which is a plan for the courtyard garden in front of the new extension.
I turn up at the house on Monday morning, talk my idea through with my sister, who likes it (phew!), and passes it on to her builders. They begin marking out right there and then. At this stage it’s still on tracing paper. I haven’t even had time to put it on the computer.
So I’m hard at work. And loving it. This site isn’t easy – it drops away by several metres from top to bottom, there are gardens to be planned front and back, a request for different areas for sitting and eating and screening needed from nearby neighbours. My sister’s thing is food, so she wants to be able to cook outside, she wants a space to entertain, a separate seating area in front of the downstairs bedroom because she’s thinking about doing bed and breakfast; she wants places to sit and contemplate; and both she and the house demand a cottage style planting plan.
All this has to be achieved with respect and consideration for the spirit of this wonderful place. Because this cottage has been here a very long time. The architect and builders have done a superb job of adding an extension that fits perfectly with the old building. Now this stunning new old house needs a stunning new old garden to go with it.
It’s happening before I have time to draw breath. I do get a chance to tweak and make changes. After they’ve started! And I do manage to put the plan into the computer. But there’s been no time for any frilly bits – this is all about producing something that the builders can work from. ASAP!
And there’s no time to rest. Because there’s the front garden to consider. And again another plan to be produced at speed, because the builders have to lay a terrace and want to know how and what and where. And then there are the planting plans to be done for the courtyard and the front garden.
So no pressure then!!!
But it seems to be going ok. My sister is happy. The builders are happy. I’m happy. And on top of that I’ve got a garden to plan for sister number two.
Looks like I might be a garden designer after all!
You know all that ‘I am a garden designer’ stuff that’s been going on in these pages over the past couple of years? Well, I’m going to let you into a secret. It’s all bollocks. And I’ll tell you for why.
Just because you do a garden design course for a year doesn’t make you a garden designer. Or at least it doesn’t make me a garden designer. What it does make me – or rather what it did make me – was slightly insane.
It’s taken me a year to realise this. But now, with a new year beginning, it’s time to set the record straight. Because –
I AM NOT A GARDEN DESIGNER.
There I’ve gone and said it. And boy, oh boy, does it feel good. Cos here’s the thing…
The reason I chose to do a garden design course (as I explained when I signed up) was because friends had been asking me to help them with their gardens, make suggestions, offer advice. Which I was keen to do. But before I waded in I felt I could do with a bit more knowledge. I wanted to feel more confident that what I was suggesting was the right thing to do. I wasn’t looking for a full blown, start at the bottom and work my arse off career. I’d been and gone and done that thing once before in my life. I really didn’t need to do it again.
Added to this I had just been through a bumpy couple of years, with loads of family stuff going on, and I wanted to do something for me, something rewarding, enjoyable, challenging. What I was looking for was the life enhancement and fulfilment that I believed would come from learning about a subject I loved. Which is why I signed up for the garden design course at Hampton Court Palace.
So…? How was it? Challenging? Yes. Rewarding and enjoyable…? Hell, no.
The palace was fabulous. The people were lovely. The course was… a frickin’ nightmare. It was. I’m not exaggerating. And it all started out so well.
I loved the early stuff; the sketching, the garden history, the plant knowledge. But, after the first couple of weeks, it all went pear-shaped. To become a garden designer there is so much you need to know. If you’re going to go into someone else’s garden and start shifting earth around, knocking things down, building things, planting things that are going to live, die, grow big, take over… you really need to know your onions. (No pun intended.) You need to be an expert in design, know all about construction, about plants and planting, the climate, all that insurance and liability and who’s responsible for what stuff. You need to know how to sketch and draw, how to design using a computer. You need to know how to set up and run a business. These are vast subjects in themselves. Two days a week for a year can’t begin to do them justice.
So it was mad. It felt as if there was too much to learn crammed into too little time to learn it. Which for a raging perfectionist like me was complete hell. Added to which it seemed to me that we spent far too much time on the superficial stuff, and not enough on the nitty gritty. I wanted more substance and less packaging. For me it was too much about the presentation and not enough about what we were presenting. We were concentrating on, and being assessed for, drawing pretty pictures, when I wanted to learn about what makes a great design, how to manage space and utilise mass and form, the philosophy and guiding principles for putting together a planting plan.
I dropped out, went back, and dropped out again four weeks before the end. I came out of the experience feeling less able rather than more. And I lost myself in the process.
So do I regret doing it? Well I don’t believe in regret – and good stuff has come out of it. This blog for one thing – which led me back to writing. Which in turn encouraged me to have a go at self-publishing The Greenyards Legacy. Which in turn has encouraged me to have a go at writing another book. For this I am eternally grateful.
But if I knew then what I know now, would I have done the course? The answer is a resounding no. It’s entirely personal, but it seemed like a very expensive way of finding out how little I knew about garden design. Given the chance again I would find more practical, hands-on ways of learning how to be a garden designer. If being a garden designer was what I wanted to be. As it is I’m leaving it to the experts, and I’m going to stick with writing.
Will I carry on with this blog? I’m not sure. It depends whether I’ve got anything to write about that I think people might want to read.
Which means that this is yet another one of those watch this space moments. Only this time I don’t know if I’ll be back.