Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Robin Lane Fox designs a subversively modern vegetable garden that could work in all terrains

I ought to explain my choice of supermarket imagery. In between the big pots you should put some smaller pots of good compost, which you can sow with seed of genuine spinach - not the type of beet, or beta vulgaris, that panders to modern supermarket customers' penchant for unseasonable shopping. True spinach is a summer vegetable, which tends to flop if taken too far from home. It tastes of iron and dark green goodness. The beet impostor tastes of nondescript leaves and does not deserve the marketers' ploy of calling it "French". If you want proper spinach you have to grow your own, out of the reach of predators at ground level. I grow the strong Scenic F1 Hybrid, whose seed is available from Thompson & Morgan of Ipswich.

My other supermarket supplements are dill and chervil. They are two excellent herbs, which seldom turn up in the shops in those pots of hopeless peat. You have to sow them yourself, but they are extremely easy to grow. Dill makes rather thin-stemmed plants with finely cut little leaves, but it is the most excellent companion for ordinary farmed fish. The chopped leaves will even enliven sea bass that has never seen salt water. Its full name is Anethum gravolens and it is seldom as much as a foot high. Chervil, by contrast, is much too strongly flavoured for fish. It comes into its own when a few leaves are shredded and mixed into scrambled eggs. Few shops actually sell it, but it is extraordinarily easy to grow in a pot, even on a windowsill. Its botanical name is Anthriscus.

The centrepiece of my answer to the allotment has to be the bitter-leaved radicchio. It can be hard to find in supermarkets but this year Thompson & Morgan are offering seeds of an excellent early variety from Treviso in northern Italy. I value it because it is excellent in a particular recipe. Cut bits of radicchio into thin strips and cut a few slices of Parma ham into similar widths. Melt some unsalted butter and add a clove of squashed garlic and two tablespoons of chopped leaves from a rosemary bush. Put in half of the radicchio and half the Parma ham. Cook them very briefly and put to one side. Then, boil up some tagliatelle in salted water, drain it and add a bit more butter and some Parmesan cheese. Put in the cooked radicchio and ham and then add the rest and stir it around frantically. It is much better with your own fresh radicchio. The recipe is not mine, I owe it to the River Cafe cookbook Easy but I have eaten it six times in the past six months.

The crucial point is to realise that vegetables make the most excellent pot plants if you choose varieties carefully. The hazards at ground level are simply too great for most of us. Flies proliferate, rain is rare and the dreaded wildlife will eat whatever it can. Turn the old advice on its head and put flowers in your allotment and vegetables on a weed-free terrace beside the house.

My answer to the allotment GARDENING

Behind every garden there is said to lie a vision. It may be a hazy memory from childhood, a photograph in a pretty book or a memory enhanced by love on holiday in the south of France.

Sometimes I meet male corporate bulldozers who pat me on the back for continuing to write this column and tell me how much they enjoy gardening. They then settle down in their offices to savage anything that moves slowly. I cannot help wondering about the vision behind their gardens - a secretary, perhaps, on a meaningful picnic for two in very long grass in July?

Vegetable gardens rest on visions too, visions of rich greenery and carrots which grow straight. These visions are a fantasy if you live on a clay soil, in the centre of cities or anywhere within a three-mile radius of my own garden's replica of the shingle on Dungeness Beach. If you do, my advice is quite different. Forget the soil at ground level. Put vegetables out of reach of it and think Tarmac. On it, arrange vegetables in pots, where you can control everything that happens to them. The aim here is to be extremely modern, subverting and deconstructing green gardeners' rules of the game. You can never complain again that I write only for people with big country gardens, whose clocks have stopped in 1962. Here is how to design a vegetable garden on a new wave of modern realism.

First, concrete over the patch you wish to consecrate to vegetables. Then, draw four symbolic figures, one for each corner of your patch of fertility. In the upper right-hand corner, paint a pair of black-gloved hands seizing a supermarket basket in which the FT is showing the share price ofJ. Sainsbury plc. In the lower left, draw a badger, snarling, as one of them snarled at me on Good Friday when I brought it a saucer of inorganic milk. In the lower right, draw some distressed butterflies and a slug weeping with slime as it deconstructs. In the upper left, draw a frustrated rabbit, one with its paws and jaw tied in a bed of young lettuces.

The beauty of this design is that you can use it anywhere, even in small urban gardens, and you can vary the images to include your own worst enemies. When you have laid your concrete zone, place four very large cheap clay pots on its outer edges and fill them with the most exquisite ready-made, fertile compost. Coat their lower rims with Vaseline, which is an excellent defence against climbing slugs; you might consider a line of razor blades against any squirrels with ambition. Into each of the tubs, plant a very special variety of potato, and sow seeds of the excellent medal-winning Sytan variety of carrots, which has won merited awards from the Royal Horticultural Society. It has an excellent taste and is reasonably resistant to the dreaded carrot fly.

My latest volume of hot air on the subject is Organic Gardening by John Fedor, who gardens in northeast America. He claims that "mixing parsley and carrots deters carrot flies because of the masking aroma of the parsley". Dream on, old boy. The flies still eat my carrots and Peter Rabbit polishes off the parsley, just as Beatrix Potter predicted.

GRAND DESIGNS ; Rich patrons always turn to the same posse of aristo lady designers. No wonder their gardens look so dull, says Christopher Stocks

Prince Charles is a prime example. When he bought his home Highgrove in 1980, updating the garden was one of his first priorities. Unfortunately, as he admits, at the time, "I knew nothing about the practical aspects of gar- dening." So did he get Alan Titchmarsh in? Well, no. For the initial designs and practical advice he went straight to the Marchioness of Salisbury, whose own Gold-standard gardens, first at Cranborne Manor and later at Hatfield House, are all trim topiary and tumbling roses. She, in turn, introduced him to Dame Miriam Rothschild, the white wellington- boot-wearing world authority on fleas, whose overgrown garden at Ashton Wold became a test-bed for the wild-flower-meadow mania sweeping the back gardens of Britain today. Last but not least he called in the late Rosemary Verey, perhaps the grandest Gold of them all, whose potagers drove impressionable gardeners potty and won her the patronage of Elton John.

The grandness of the Golds is, of course, part of their appeal, but it can also be a handicap: a few years ago I met one of their leading lights on a garden visit and asked her the name of an unusual tree in her collection. She was so posh she couldn't open her mouth, and her answer went something like "Eeeuwww eyyuhm ethnk mmeuw ehmmeuwll mmmnnah," which left us pretty much back where we'd started.

Ah yes, you might say, but it's only to be expected that toffs and multimillionaires should want to deal with one of their own: what's your problem with the grandes dames of gardening? Nothing per se: they're all fine designers who deserve their success. I just think their influence hasn't always been a creative one. British gardening was once at the forefront of international innovation, but our obsession with the past, with historically correct recreations of 17th-century parterres and with cod-cottage gardens, has meant that we've drifted off into a nostalgic backwater, hobbled by snobbery and resting on laurels earned by the likes of Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West (the Golds of their day). Most of the groundbreaking ideas and designs of the past 20 years have come from abroad - from the US, France, Germany and the Netherlands - and the most imaginative gardens to be created in this country in recent years have largely been designed by foreigners: Alnwick Gardens, for example, by Jacques Wirtz (Belgian), Thames Barrier Park by Alain Provost (French), or the Princess Diana Memorial Garden by Kathryn Gustafson (American).

So does this mean that the Golds are all washed up? Is the future of British gardening less posh and less, well, British? Well, perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad thing. After all, at least with a foreign designer you know you'll be able to understand what they're saying.


Like they say, it takes one to know one. When the Duchess of Northumberland was looking for someone to design her controversial new garden at Alnwick Castle, she ended up asking a Belgian because she felt Britain's "grand old lady designers" were more interested in creating gardens for the aristocracy than for the general public. Considering the scale, and the pounds 42m projected cost of the Duchess's own extravaganza, it might appear that the lady protests too much, but actually I think she has a point.

Is British gardening too posh? Well, if the majority of gardening programmes on television were anything to go by, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's not posh enough, but I'm not talking about when to plant your brassicas or whether you should paint your decking pink. I'm talking proper, grown- up gardening now: not the flim-flam that's done just for the cameras, or the nuts-and-bolts advice that's about as exciting as poking around beneath the bonnet of your car. Real gardening is an art-form just like architecture or poetry: it takes skill, and space, and time - and money. And in Britain it seems to take a grand lady - or at least someone who aspires to their aesthetic.

Why this is I'm not entirely sure, but with the refreshing exception of Jane Northumberland, just about anyone with the will and the wallet to commission a notable garden in the past 30 years has turned to one of the "Golds", the Grand Old Lady Designers whose haughtycultural style has long dominated large-scale British gardening.

Gardening - Setting designs in stone

ferns and woodland flowers.

Freely draining soil is essential so if you have a clay garden you may need to put in extra drainage. The site will also need to be cleared of perennial weeds.

Don't just position your stone randomly, think hard about the design of your rock garden.

Boldness works well so make it as large as possible and do not position it near formal areas such as rose gardens and bedding displays.

If you use limestone or sandstone they will have clearly defined strata lines so position the rocks with these lines lying horizontally, as you'd see them in their natural environment.

Once you have the rocks in place don't rush to plant. Leave the garden for a couple of weeks, giving the soil time to settle.

When considering which plants to use remember that the rock garden offers a range of habitats for different specimens.

Vertical crevices are perfect for rosetted plants such as saxifrages and lewisias which dislike water sitting around their necks, while level areas suit bulbs and upright perennials like aquilegias and primulas.

Mat-formers like thyme also favour flat surfaces and are particularly effective tumbling over the rocks.

You can also use spot plants like dwarf shrubs and conifers but it is best to limit the number as they can overwhelm a scheme.

Do not overcrowd plants and remember that mat-formers will spread vigorously. For the crevices use small, young plants that will easily fit the tiny spaces.

Make sure there is sufficient soil in the crevice, then gently squeeze in the plant at a tilted angle with the roots pointing downward.

When planting is completed mulch the surface with 2cm of horticultural grit.

The Life Mag

GARDENERS seem to love them or hate them. I'm talking about rock gardens and as someone who rather likes them I was surprised to see gardening personality Chris Beardshaw say on a recent television programme that he really disliked them.

I have an ally, however, in top horticulturist Kathryn Bradley- Hole whose splendid book 'Stone, Rock and Gravel' contains detailed instructions for building and planting a rock garden.

'Wherever stone is abundant it can be put to good use in the garden,' she writes. 'When used well it enhances our connection with the natural world and the garden's sense of place in its surroundings.'

Once you have identified a suitable site for your garden you need to choose your rocks.

Try to blend them in with the local landscape, selecting stone from the immediate environment.

Local quarries may have piles of stones rejected by the building industry but suitable for gardens. Reclamation yards can also be profitable hunting grounds.

Once you have ordered your rocks ensure your site is prepared so you can get them in place as soon as they are delivered.

Your site should be as open, bright and sunny as possible. A sloping site is ideal as this gives better drainage and looks more natural.

Don't despair if you only have a shady area, just select plants that prefer that particular environment, such as ferns and woodland flowers.

Home Garden Design Workshop

Spring arrived three days ago - on the calendar, at least. That may be a tease to garden buffs itching to do more than thumb through plant catalogs.

That's why the first hands-on gardening workshops of the new season are so appealing. One of them, offered at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's Elm Bank Education Center in Wellesley, will create transition between garden daydreaming and realistic planning for the growing season ahead.

Garden designers Mary Dewart and Maria von Brincken will try to inspire gardeners in a "Connecting with Nature: Creating Gardens of Meaning and Beauty Intensive Home Garden Design Workshop." The two- day workshop, offered April 4 and 12, incorporates exercises on the Elm Bank property and in the classroom there, too.

"To be a good designer, you have to have everything from the big picture to the smallest petal or blade of grass in mind," Dewart said. "We plan to introduce people to several ways to get in touch with the big picture."

Von Brincken said the workshops would begin with opening exercises designed to "free up the imagination." Weather permitting, participants might go out into the landscape and discover the elements - from the shade cast by trees to hardscape under their feet - that grab each gardener's attention.

Dewart said the group will also learn to observe archetypal aspects of the landscape and discover which ones appeal to each gardener. For instance, some people might feel drawn to semi- enclosed places that represent safe harbors. This might be achieved in the garden by installing a terrace surrounded by perennials. Others might respond more to garden areas that serve, in a broad sense, as promontories. Examples of promontory spaces include an overlook and a plot that juts into a larger garden area. Still, other green thumbs might point to the cave as an appealing archetype. A garden outgrowth of this might be a pergola surrounded on three sides by shrubs.

After discovering the kind of spaces that make them comfortable and the archetypes that they respond to, workshop participants can return to the classroom and make simple constructions, using cardboard, of overall garden forms. They will then move to two- dimensional drawings.

Using color wheels and other materials, Dewart and von Brincken will help participants create garden designs that please the eye and engage the other senses, too. Even if the home landscapes at their command are sited around a house and driveway instead of the rich landscape of Elm Bank, the goal is for gardeners to learn a process that they can apply to creating meaningful garden designs.