‘It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees’

Two years ago, in early December 2016, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in New York City, my first visit for eight years. At the top of my ‘must-sees’ was the High Line, the linear park which runs along a disused elevated railway track to the west of mid-town Manhattan. 30 feet above the city streets, the High Line is a perfect platform from which to survey the cityscape: the cross town streets and the canyon of Tenth Avenue.

The park’s landscaping is the work of Dutch landscape architect, Piet Oudolf, whose name is now synonymous with ‘prairie’ style planting where herbaceous perennials rub shoulders with numerous grass species. I have seen his work in the double borders at RHS Garden Wisley and hope to visit the garden he designed at the Hauser & Wirth gallery at Durslade Farm in Somerset in the coming year. Even on a cold December morning, the 1.45 mile long park displayed pockets of intriguing plants. I was especially struck by the unexpected sight of mature trees growing a few feet from the second storey windows of offices and apartment buildings. The site’s industrial past is embraced and grasses push up between complicated rail junctions. Every so often we encountered gardeners tending the planted areas and I saw a sign advertising for volunteers to help maintain what has become a major tourist attraction in the city.

Quirky sculptures and installations occur along the length of the High Line: here a car built of car tyres, there an alternative hand-typed political manifesto on a billboard several metres high. And in this park one has the rare opportunity in crowded Manhattan to stand and appreciate the monumental architecture of the city, the sky-scraping edifices of central Manhattan to the north and of the Financial District to the south. Craft plying the Hudson River glimpsed between buildings two avenues to the west are a reminder of New York’s maritime and mercantile foundations.

We were walking along the High Line on the way to lunch with a cousin and friends at Gene’s Restaurant on West 11th Street: a chance to catch up with dear people at their favourite Italian. En route I glimpsed Christmas trees for sale on a street corner and not for the first time in New York it felt like a scene from a movie. In this case ‘When Harry Met Sally’ when Meg Ryan single-handedly drags the tree back to her apartment.


I’m keeping it brief for this post on Christmas Eve and wish you a very happy Christmas and New Year. Here’s to plenty of gardening work, visits and writing in the year to come. And thank you for reading my posts thus far.




From Smethwick to Knightsbridge

I mentioned salmon pink geraniums in a children’s book in a recent blog post and have found a reference to geraniums in another work of fiction. In Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, the eponymous heroine visits her friend Raymond’s mother in a suburb of Glasgow: ‘We approached the front door and I noticed that she had red geraniums in window boxes. I find geraniums somewhat unsettling; that rich, sticky scent when you brush past them, a brackish, vegetable smell that’s the opposite of floral.’ Unlike Eleanor Oliphant I am not unsettled by geraniums, or more accurately Pelargoniums, but I agree the scent of their foliage is most distinctive.  I would however apply Eleanor’s description to the aroma of tomato leaves which for me summons memories of my maternal grandfather’s greenhouse in Smethwick which was always packed with tomato plants. Another of his horticultural passions was growing the pillowy red and yellow annuals Calceolaria, which are no longer fashionable. My only attempt at following his example and growing them from seed came to nothing, but I intend to sow the dust like seeds again next year (Suttons Seeds’ Calceolaria ‘Sunset Mix’) and shall hope for more success.

This post is a hotch potch of topics, reflecting the state of mind in which most of it was written a few days ago, jangled after a break in at home. One of the recommended deterrents is to plant something spiky around the perimeter of the garden. A friend who kindly carried out some urgent repairs for me in the garden suggested a thorny and prolific rambling rose to cover the trellis atop the fences. I have started researching potential cultivars and am deliberating between two. Rosa “Rambling Rector’ has thorny shoots and sprays of small white flowers which I can see would complement the two climbing roses which grow up the wooden archway at the entrance to the seating area in the sunniest corner of the garden: Rosa ‘Blush Noisette’ and Rosa ‘White Star’. But I am also tempted by the open and pollinator attracting white flowers of another rambler: Rosa ‘Bobbie James’. Both can grow to 25 metres: enough to protect at least two boundaries!

One of the climbing roses I just mentioned, Rosa ‘White Star’, grew tremendously last summer. It has glossy dark green leaves and open ivory blooms. Touching wood as I write this, it also appears to be resistant to disease. It gleams in the dusk of a summer twilight and is graced with a strong perfume.


When I visited the Faringdon Collection at 28 Brompton Square in Knightsbridge a couple of weeks ago, I was interested to see the different window boxes around the square. I was dismayed to note the plastic box ‘plants’ (in both ‘hedge’ and ‘ball’ form) on display at several properties, but when I noticed the parched brown remains of a blight affected box hedge in one of the window boxes, I began to understand (though not condone) the owners’ rationale in installing such monstrosities. Another house sported a prickly affair of cactuses and succulents which was certainly eye-catching, and perhaps protected from frost in this central London location.


The most attractive window boxes were outside our destination: immaculate white pelargoniums. This was not surprising given the high standard of horticulture at Buscot House in Oxfordshire, the National Trust run property owned by Lord Faringdon. A visit to his London home to see part of his art collection (£10, booking required) does not include a visit to the garden but there is ample opportunity to survey its  symmetrical design from the upper windows of the house. One of my favourite places in the house was the ‘Gazebo Room”, decorated with a trellis design and comfortably furnished with two chairs and an elegant writing desk overlooking the formal garden. Of the two garden sculptures visible from the house, one, a stylised figure of a young man, came from the Commonwealth Institute.

It was a wet and gloomy November afternoon, but the strong structural design of the space remained evident. An arcade of green metal arches draws the eye along a brick herringbone path to a small classical statue. To one side of this is an area of low growing box balls of equal size clustered at the foot of a smallish tree, almost naked of leaves: a Mulberry?

On a balcony at the front of the house I noticed two fleece covered containers. I learnt from the caretaker who showed us around, that the pots contained Agapanthus. In such a sheltered location I would not have thought such a precaution necessary, but the neatly fleeced and pegged structures were themselves an intriguing feature.


Next time: I plant winter themed containers for the front garden and recall a winter visit to the High Line in Manhattan.


Toads and more

Imagine being woken from a deep warm sleep by someone wielding a shovel. This was the experience of the four toads we unearthed from a mature leaf mould pile in the gardens at Osterley two weeks ago. We were excavating the leaf mould to use as mulch in the Winter Garden. The amphibians had snuggled themselves into this dense and dark environment presumably with a view to remaining in hibernation until next spring. Each time we found a toad we carefully deposited its plump brown and understandably trembling body in the neighbouring leaf compound where last years leaves are slowly rotting down into a rich dark substance which will be ready to harvest in a year or so.

Recent work at Osterley has been varied and very satisfying. We have cut down to ground level the Asters and Heleniums in the American Border, the long deep area which backs onto the Tudor Walled Garden planted with specimens of shrubs and herbaceous perennials originating from North America. One of these is the towering herbaceous perennial American pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, which bears racemes of crimson-black berries in the autumn. This too was cut down to the ground. After weeding we planted a scattering of tulip bulbs between the crowns of the plants we had  cleared, which in some cases were already fringed in the first of next year’s leaves.

A week ago, in one quadrant of the Tudor Walled Garden, we grubbed out the Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis, which provide height and drama amidst the Dahlias and Mexican sunflowers which two months ago were still thriving colourfully in the glorious open location. I described working in the midst of this bed in a blog post a couple of months ago and at its height it is truly a kaleidoscope of varying shades of orange, red and yellow. One of the Osterley gardeners explained that the Castor Oil plants have been particularly successful this year, having been started under glass in February in preparation for planting out after the frosts have ceased. Their success was demonstrated by their unwillingness to be extracted from the soil. Each spot plant had formed a tough knuckle of root from which radiated several anchoring roots necessitating some persistent spade and fork work for every plant. The waste material was shredded that afternoon in the work yard area near the Gardeners’ Bothy ready for composting. Out too came a few remaining stands of Rainbow Chard, a reminder that the planting in this bed deliberately mixes culinary and decorative specimens. Over the coming months the now empty bed will be rotavated and spread with a leaf mould mulch,  toads optional

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The profusion of growth in the Tudor Walled Garden in September
Castor Oil plants in the Tudor Walled Garden on 14 September 2018