Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Veddw

I have visited a lot of gardens over the years, and although I've enjoyed my visits I have found many of the gardens I've visited to be somewhat formulaic; long borders billowing with perennials, the feature tree placed just right to frame the house, well proportioned expanses of lawn... it's all lovely but very much variations on the same theme. When the opportunity came to see somewhere different I jumped at it, ready to be wowed by a different approach.

I'm aware of the Thinking Gardens movement through its website. The manifesto of this group states that it wants to “...reinstate gardens as a stimulus to pleasurable and productive debate and to foster gardens that offer deeper artistic expression”- well a visit to the garden of the movement's founder, Ann Wareham, was guaranteed to broaden my horizons and open my eyes to new possibilities, so time to visit.
The Veddw is a surprisingly small garden set on the edge of woodland on a beautiful hillside in Monmouthshire, with fabulous views on the hot and sunny day I visited. The garden is unashamedly not a plantsman's garden (in fact Ann Wareham reels against such people in her article for The Telegraph), but what strikes you first is how lush and green it all is. The Veddw is known for its iconic wavy hedges, and it is these that greet you when you first arrive- I was absolutely enamoured with them! 
Clever use of copper and green beech to add variations in the tone of the hedge, the way the waves fitted with each other to give the effect of three dimensional hills in a wide landscape... magnificent! Best of all this part of the garden packs a lot of interest and green sculpture into a small space; I saw inspiration for other spaces, not too big, where similar bold ideas could be tried out. The hedges themselves enclose a series of small spaces, within each of which is a different design and idea.
Other parts of the garden are more traditional in their feel, but still nonetheless designed with proportions and form first in mind. The wild flower meadow dotted with orchids and bisected by a mown path flanked with large standard trees, a sunny spot centred by a bird bath where Chamaenerion angustifolium 'Album' (the white flowered 'rosebay willowherb') is allowed to grow to majestic proportions instead of being cramped and confined, a semicircular bed planted with only steely-blue Leymus... all very nice.
Or it would be. Walking around The Veddw I felt something was amiss. Something just wasn't right. The pockets of plants were nice enough, and to be honest I didn't really care that plants weren't labelled because I would know plants that could create 'The Veddw effect' if needed... no, something wasn't right.
This garden is not a manicured plot, nature is allowed to mingle with the cultivated plants to create a soft and pleasant feeling of the garden being in touch with its surroundings. The difficulty with this is that the 'natural look' has to be carefully maintained (ironically) to make sure that nature doesn't get the upper hand. I felt that in some parts of the garden nature was starting to take over, and that three foot willow saplings and other big chunky native plants were in danger of tipping the balance away from The Veddw and more towards Welsh hillside wilderness. Granted, we've just had a mild and wet winter which has allowed weeds free reign in gardens, but by June I would have expected the garden to have retaken its territory from the invaders.

Some of the planting was looking decidedly threadbare. I can't imagine the soil at The Veddw is all that forgiving (nor the soggy South Wales climate) but areas of the garden were looking unloved. Now Ann Wareham makes it plain to anyone who asks that she is not a gardener, she is a creator of gardens but doesn't relish or enjoy the physical act of 'gardening', but the problem for me was that bare patches left by failed plants spoiled the effect that was trying to be achieved. Ann is a garden writer and an advocate of gardens being art, and yet in some places the problems with the planting could be likened to paint flaking from a canvas- you can still see the picture, but your eye is naturally drawn to the imperfections, taking your mind away from what the artist is trying to achieve. A few isolated patches could be dismissed, especially after a difficult winter, but the sense of half neglect was all around the garden. A couple of Valerian seedlings sticking out from the bold planting of Leymus diluted the statement, the area of very bold silver Cardoons underplanted with bronze Heuchera was let down by the patchiness of the Heuchera, the Hemerocallis with buds badly deformed by Hemerocallis Gall Midge let down the view from a seat... combined it was these little details, and more, that accumulated to let the garden down for me. The Veddw sets out to be something bold and artistic, but the execution of the art in places let the overall effect down.
It's fair to say that my visit to The Veddw has taught me some very interesting and important lessons. Firstly be bold with structure in the garden; the thick wavy hedges are not something that I would have had courage to do myself, but oh boy do they work! Secondly try to limit planting, especially in smaller spaces; although The Veddw has a wider range of plants in the garden than I was expecting they are grouped together carefully and with consideration... Rodgersias (my current fetish) are grouped together with other big plants to create harmony rather than a jarring collector's cabinet effect. Thirdly if you are going to stick your neck out and be different and encourage others to break away from horticultural conformity, the execution of your art must be exact; the bolder your garden the less you can get away with.
Don't just take my word for it, you can visit The Veddw on Sunday afternoons until the last Sunday of August, from 2-5pm.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Sitting out

I've treated myself to a new chair. It's nothing posh, just a comfy folding camp chair, the type used by fishermen etc. Having nowhere to sit in a garden is not a good thing, but then neither is not having a garden at all. Due to financial constraints, partly living alone and partly working in a fairly low paid industry, I can't afford to rent a property with any ground, so I make do with what I've got, a small concreted yard and a flag-stoned area. Thus everything I grow at home is in pots, and this doesn't exactly make for an easy life. Watering and feeding is a regular activity and most be done when required, regardless of whether I'm in the mood to do it after work. You'd have thought that after a day weeding, watering and feeding plants at work that I wouldn't have the stomach to do it all again when I got home, but for me growing plants isn't an option, it's a necessity.

At work I have to grow what other people tell me to grow, whether that be leylandii or rare shrubs, a few beautiful unusual perennials or never ending batches of Geranium 'Rozanne'. At home I am free, free to indulge my own tastes and grow whatever I want, providing I can grow it in a pot. I do push the boundaries a little and grow a few tender plants, but not many because whatever needs winter protection needs to come indoors. Last winter I was lucky and only needed to bring in my wide sprawling Pelargonium tomentosum a few times, but space indoors is very limited so I can't go for too many tender plants. Of course in pots even some hardy plants can become tender- hardy Impatiens are a little fussier without soil and the protection of other plants for winter. Nonetheless I persevere... because I have to. 
Pelargonium tomentosum- tiny flowers, huge leaves!
Growing in a very small space gives gardeners some serious headaches, but can also make gardening even more fun. I would love a 20 acre arboretum, billowing herbaceous borders, an alpine house, a conservatory... I don't have any of those. This means that my choice of plants has to be precise; I don't have the space to buy large numbers of plants on a whim! I love to have something new, but I have to be confident that I'm buying the right thing because I can afford neither the cash or the space to make a mistake. Each plant I own has been carefully considered.

Some plants I'm immensely proud of, such as my collection of Hostas; H. 'Empress Wu' sits alongside H. 'Francis Williams' and H. 'Jade Cascade', three Hostas I would recommend to anyone without hesitation. In front of my now is Lamprothyrsus hieronymi, a relative of the well known 'Pampas Grasses', the Cortaderias. This species has take to pot culture very well, and now must have more than 20 arching fluffy flowerheads dancing in the wind. Below is Petasites paradoxus, a non-troublesome species with roughly triangular leaves with a pure white underside. Further down, the felty peppermint-scented leaves on Pelargonium tomentosum poke out between a young plant of Debregeasia longifolia given to me by a good friend, and on the other side the green leaves and purple Zebra-striped stems of Impatiens ingsignis, a species I am determined to get into flower. Further back the architectural leaves of Sinacalia tangutica add to the overall lush effect. I will consider myself to be in a 'good place' if I find myself complaining about this magnificent species and its wandering tendencies, but for now it must be contented to live in its pot.
Petasites paradoxus with the leaves of Lamprothyrsus hieronymi
I have troughs too, filled with delightful plants too! Favourite at the moment is Impatiens omeiana 'Pink Nerves', a very exciting new selection/collection of a reliably hardy (in all but the coldest areas anyway) species. Every day I check to see if this plant is coming into flower, but for now I must be content with the beautiful colour of its leaves. Funny thing I've just noticed; my new chair sits me quite low to this plant (with it growing in a deep trough) and puts me at the perfect level to enjoy the bright red undersides of away-facing leaves. This is good.
Impatiens omeiana 'Pink Nerves'
For me growing plants is more than just a hobby or a job. The word 'passion' gets thrown around a lot these days (companies 'passionate about delivering good service/sanitation/pizza etc.), but I can only describe myself as passionate about horticulture. Whereas 'normal' respectable folks enjoy a beer with friends, movie nights with loved ones, or their favourite sports team playing, I am consumed with a need to learn more about what I do and love. I read books, send emails/tweets, share plants and ideas, go to fairs, events and gardens... all of my time and energy is devoted to this all encompassing passion. I should probably report to the nearest psychiatric facility and be put back on the 'straight and narrow', but hey I'm not hurting anyone.

People sometimes ask me where I'd like to be in five years time. Well I'd like to be out in the garden! If my ship comes in then maybe I will get my arboretum etc., but that is fairly unlikely to happen. I would be perfectly happy though growing plants for someone else to enjoy, and maybe I'll get the opportunity to do that.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Do plant enthusiasts still exist?

Growing plants is only half the job of a nurseryman, the other half being to enthuse gardeners to actually buy the plants. Picking the right plants to grow is crucial; grow a plant that no-one wants and you're left with stock that has cost money to produce and gives no chance to recoup your losses. Accurately predicting the needs of your customers is what makes nurseries successful.
Ajuga incisa 'Bikun'
The tricky bit of this process is the timescales involved; a customer will often decide at very short notice that they want a particular plant, but the time to raise that plant can vary from a few weeks to a year or more, longer of course for a specimen-size plant.
Trochodendron aralioides
In many ways the enthusiasm for particular plants is driven by the nurseries producing them. Advertising, bright posters in garden centres, and accolades such as 'RHS Chelsea Plant Of The Year' all help to drum up interest for new varieties. What about older varieties? What about rare plants?

For me a rare or largely unknown plant has a certain lure, but this isn't the case for everyone. Nonetheless there are thousands of plants being grown by smaller niche nurseries in the UK for the discerning plant enthusiasts who flock to them, many of which are grown by only one nursery. If a plant isn't good enough to be mass produced is it really worth growing?

For me the answer is a clear yes, but others don't share my certainty. In order to understand why small nurseries persevere with these plants rather than growing the more 'commercial' varieties it is important to understand why a plant is rare in the first place. Sometimes plants are rare because they are difficult to propagate or to grow, limiting their availability or their potential market (how many people could provide lots of room for a fast growing tender tree or carefully controlled humidity for a tricky orchid?). Other plants are rare because they have been superseded by better, more reliable varieties. Still other plants are rare simply because very few people have ever heard of them, maybe because they have only just been introduced into cultivation or because their names aren't 'out there' yet. Just because a plant is rare in cultivation doesn't mean that it's not worth growing and not worth telling the whole world about!

Styrax japonicus
For a nursery selling rare plants the key is providing good information; today's gardeners may not be as knowledgeable as previous generations but they have better access to information than ever before, so good descriptions and plenty of easy to understand information about a rare plant will allow it to compete on a level playing field with any other plant.

The advantage to modern online retailing is that the internet has made it easier for customers to find out about and shop with smaller, more specialised retailers, and the knock-on effect of this is that it has become possible and desirable to buy niche products. If you want to you can buy Egyptian cotton, incense sticks from Japan and Tartan from an independent in Scotland, all via your computer. Likewise you can research and buy rare and unusual plants from specialist growers to make your garden unique.
Petasites paradoxus
Getting the message out to gardeners is the hardest bit, but is also crucial. Using your knowledge and experience as a grower and a gardener (along with the quality of your plants), it is entirely possible as a nursery to make a living growing and selling special, rare and unusual plants. You do, however, have to build up the confidence of your customers first; once you have a reputation for a great range and extensive knowledge then your nursery will become a mecca for serious gardeners.

So do plant enthusiast actually still exist? Yes, very much so! As the older generation shopping with dogeared lists of plants carefully selected from extensive reference libraries slowly wains, so a new generation of plant enthusiasts is emerging, replete with smartphones and tablet PCs, looking for exciting and different plants to enhance their gardens, and these new expert gardeners are every bit as passionate about growing plants as the generations before them.
Gunnera perpensa
You might be interested to know that, although the Styrax and Trochodendron both appreciate protection from strong winds, the plants pictured on this page are rare and unusual but are also reliably hardy in much of the UK.