My goodness the Dahlias have done us proud this year. It’s all down to 70 tons of cow manure and a hefty dose of fine hot weather. And just when we thought it was going to be too dry down came some tropical rain. This warm weather should be good for some of our perennial sub-tropical plants too, such as the Chusan palms and the Cordylines. They will benefit from a long hot spell by building up enough strength to get them through the winter. This has also been our best season for fruit for many a year. We’ve had to share it, mind you – and not just with blackbirds and pigeons. One of the main beneficiaries have been the squirrels – it’s amazing how dextrous they can be on a cherry tree.
The consensus of opinion among those I spoke to who saw Christopher Bradley-Hole’s Telegraph garden at Chelsea was that it was “awful”. It was drab, dire, derivative and, most significantly for a garden at a spring show, entirely mono-chromatic. What Brits long for after a long hard winter is a bit of joie de vivre. Spring was so slow in arriving this year that we had the delayed gratification of seeing it all together in the month of May; daffodils with azaleas, tulips with paeonies. It was a relief to step back into my garden after Chelsea and see the colours of spring as they ought to be. And to know that there’s plenty more to come. Could there be anything more depressing than to open the bedroom curtains every morning, to be faced with a colourless “zen” creation in the Christopher Bradley-Hole mode?
We have said goodbye to the last garden visitors of the year, with a huge sigh of relief. Not that we don’t enjoy having them round, it’s just that we can relax now and let nature take its course.
There’s a common misconception that visits to private gardens only got going when Elsie Wagg had the idea for the National Gardens Scheme in 1927. In fact such visits were commonplace; what the NGS did was to coordinate private efforts and to raise money for charity. Elsie Wagg wasn’t in fact the first person to propose such a scheme. A letter from a correspondent signing themselves “Donto” to The Garden magazine in July 1890 said:
“I look forward with pleasure to the (I hope not very distant) time when there will be a recognised system with all people who live in and near large towns and have pretty gardens to open them occasionally during the summer months on certain days, for no-one knows except the working classes what a boon it is, how healthful to both body and mind to walk amongst and admire pretty garden scenes, and to breathe the sweet odours of a garden, after the disagreeable and often injurious smells of a workroom.”
Donto spoke of the number of “not large, but very pretty and well-kept gardens” in his neighbourhood which opened to the public on Sunday afternoons and evenings in the summer. One, he said, had had 1,400 visitors in one day and they “had not missed a single bloom or discovered a broken plant”.
This last remark prompted a reply from “J”, who said: “The gardens here have been open to the public two years and… among the many are to be found persons less particular as to how a thing is obtained than they should be. Not only have fruit and flowers disappeared during these two years here but plants as well. This is only what any rational person would expect, and those who adopt it will find out that their infatuated ideas of the universal integrity of man is based upon a false conception of the principles by which the many are actuated, and will learn that they are fostering dishonest habits by putting temptation in the way of people who cannot resist it”.
“J” seems to have had the last word, at least for the next 40 years. And our own experience? I once caught someone surreptitiously weeding, but apart from that the behaviour of our visitors has been impeccable.
“Do you mind if I take a yew log from your woodpile?” asked the chirpy visitor at one of my garden open days last year. “Of course not, go ahead” I replied, thinking, but not saying, “Cheeky bugger”. Actually it’s nice to be asked. Open days are liberally interpreted as “open house” days as visitors, mainly of the fairer sex, fill their bags with cuttings, or worse. The truth is, I don’t mind at all; I take it as a compliment and no harm is done.
The ladies who filch cuttings never return with the fruits of their labour but the chirpy chappy did, at my Open day today, and I couldn’t have been more delighted. He had taken a yew log which was destined for the fire and turned it into the most beautiful bowl. Making logs into wooden objects is a bit like cooking it seems, in that you have to make sure the wood is properly seasoned. But seasoning in this case doesn’t mean the liberal application of salt and pepper, but involves allowing the wood to mature.
The chirpy chappy turned out to be Keith Howard, from Stockport, who carves wood for Beechwood Cancer Care for whom he raises thousands each year. His most popular carvings are little yew wood Christmas trees. I let him help himself to whatever he wanted from my wood pile today – I’d love to see one of his Christmas trees.
“It is better to have your head in the clouds and know where you are- than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think you are in paradise.” – Thoreau
“The best moment in love is climbing the stairs to your beloved’s apartment” – French saying
You’re not allowed to use a mobile phone in a quiet coach because, as the Japanese say, “this may annoy the neighbours”, but what’s the etiquette about laughing out loud? I fear that I may have annoyed quite a few neighbours when reading Antony Woodward’s book “The Garden in the Clouds” because I couldn’t help bursting out laughing. At times it’s as funny as a P G Wodehouse, which may seem odd, as the book’s about making a garden on a remote Welsh hillside, and then opening it under the “Yellow Book” scheme. I would recommend the book to anyone, but particularly to some-one who is considering opening their garden to the public.
The story is about the author’s attempts to get the garden up to Yellow Book standards, for which he needs to convince the County Organiser, a formidable lady of the old school who he nicknames “The Dragon”. When The Dragon finally comes to assess the garden, the author’s 7 year old daughter is there to greet her and asks “Why do you call her a dragon daddy- she doesn’t look anything like a dragon?”.
This afternoon we opened our garden for one of our Yellow Book days and our County Organiser, who is tall and imposing but not at all dragon-like, came for a tour and some tea. We discussed “A Garden in the Clouds” and she listened politely while I raved about it, but she didn’t seem so keen on the book, which puzzled me. It was only after she had left that I remembered, with one of those acute spasms of embarrassment, the story-line about The Dragon.
This year we numbered 100 at the Cumbria National Garden’s Scheme lunch, representing 75 gardens- more than ever before. So many in fact that we needed a new venue, which was provided by the barn at Rydal Hall. We also have a new County organiser, Dianne Hewitt. Diane and her husband David have a woodland garden in Windermere, Windy Hall, which is one of my favourites. At the back of their garden is a field in which they keep a flock of rare breed sheep.
Diane was allowed a budget of a mere £4 a head for today’s lunch for which she provided her own lamb and damson sausages, salads, some scrumptious desserts and cheese. I couldn’t help comparing this honest, authentic Cumbrian meal, with our dinner at L’Enclume last Thursday and wondered whether a meal costing many times more had in fact produced similar levels of customer satisfaction.
Diane’s menus contained an intriguing picture of a pretty young girl. The picture, she explained, was of Elsie Wagg, who worked for the Queen’s Nursing Institute and who had the bright idea in 1927 of getting people to pay a shilling a head for the privilege of visiting private gardens. This is how the National Gardens Scheme was born and last year what had begun as a shilling a head produced more than £60,000 in Cumbria alone.
September is a bonus month. We know in our hearts that the summer is over, but it’s warm enough and the flowers are as colourful as ever. It’s also one of the best months in the kitchen garden and orchard, with the tomatoes, plums and apples at their peak. We’ve had the last of our open days and I’ve sent off a cheque to the National Gardens Scheme for £7,190. Disappointingly, this is quite a lot less than last year’s record haul, but visitor numbers are weather dependent and this year’s weather has been exceptionally wet. This slide show of pictures taken in the garden in September is accompanied by…..
At our last Open Day, in August, we were over-run with visitors, which caused traffic congestion, leading to rows with exasperated motorists and, after an old gentleman had collapsed in our kitchen garden, a prolonged drama involving three “First Responders” who arrived in separate cars and an ambulance which couldn’t get through. Today, in comparison, we had a dream day. 346 visitors came, with the good sense not to arrive all at once; the weather was fine but not too hot and we raised a very handsome £1,781 for the NGS. I spend the day with a bucket and secateurs, dead-heading and tidying up, but mainly chatting amiably to the visitors, and doing my best to answer their questions. Margaret has the hellish job of serving endless teas, helped by her friend Joyce and our eldest daughter Jo. Meanwhile our youngest, Sara, is in charge of the bottom gate, helped by Matt, and our middle daughter Georgie looks after the top gate and the plant stall, helped today by another young volunteer, Chelsea. These girls have worked patiently in all weathers all day for all four of our open days this year, without a single word of complaint, which has made their old dad very proud.
The photo is of Sara and two of her friends on an earlier day putting on an impromptu ‘synchronised swimming’ show for astonished visitors in the Orangery.
"The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials"
About Slow Life
The idea of Slow Life is to take the principles of Slow Food, which are “good, clean and fair”, and extend them to life in general.
Here in the Lake District, the air is clean, the pace is slow and the atmosphere is calm. If we don’t grow food ourselves, we can buy it in friendly small shops, where you know the quality is going to be the best.
This blog is a celebration of the Slow Life, with forays into the world of design, music, the arts, gardens, and my particular weakness, Japan.