Category Archives: growing things

Know your place at the gardens

As a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, I receive a monthly magazine called The Garden.  It’s full of horticultural wisdom and a fantastic letters page.  A couple of years ago, there was a strongly worded letter condemning the ‘free for all’ that botanical gardens have become.  Instead of places for quiet contemplation and the seeking of horticultural knowledge, they have become some kind of shrub and flower theme parks where the unknowledgeable gain entry and children run around in the grassy areas.

Heaven forfend!

I’ve been going to Wisley for years, but we started to go more when we had our son.  As a baby, he was always happiest when being wheeled around outdoors, and it was something we could all enjoy.  As he got older, Wisley has been a great place for him to toddle around, and now, yes, he does like to run on the paths and peer over the bridges to look at the gaping koi.

Like the curmudgeonly letter writer, I too cannot abide children running amok in the herbaceous borders or plucking leaves and flowers.  But her tone suggested that their very presence was an anathema.  I was so offended that I wrote back to The Garden, explaining that I didn’t think that children’s behaviour at Wisley was generally a problem and that I hoped to have  many happy visits to Wisley with my son – helping him to learn about horticulture and the great cultivated outdoors.  Not only that, but I suggested that it would be a great idea if Wisley could introduce a designated play area for children and demonstrate how tough, sympathetic planting could be introduced to playgrounds.  Too often, municipal play areas are barren hardscapes with little injection of the natural world.

Wisley playground

Fantastic climbing frames

Wisley playground

Binoculars at the viewing station

Wisley playground

Den building and blocks

My letter was never published.  But there is now a play area at Wisley.  And it’s fabulous.  No swings or slides, but there are climbing frames and brilliant use of logs and stumps – some carved fantastically with snakes and owls and the Green Man.  There’s a tunnel covered with pine logs, like some kind of insect habitat, and there are frames which children can cover with dead branches and palm leaves from the glass house and other leavings of pruning maintenance.  The planting, isn’t up to scratch yet – but it’s early days – and there are olives and eucalyptus and tough herbaceous perennials which are currently fenced off to protect them from being trod on by tiny feet.

Of course, that doesn’t address the issue of inappropriate behaviour by garden visitors.  I take a very firm line on touching the plants or stepping in the borders.  Sadly not something that every garden visitor is as scrupulous about. I saw a woman in her 50s walking around with an allium seed head yesterday. And garden visitors in England are notorious for filching seed or taking surreptitious cuttings.  I have even heard that there is occasionally some scrumping in the orchards.  And yes, I have seen children out of order in the gardens.  More could be done to help parents (and others) enforce appropriate behaviour of garden visitors large and small.  But surely play areas will help little visitors burn off the energy which might be otherwise be spent on smushing the hostas or picking the hydrangeas.

Bushy Park

We’re regular visitors to Richmond Park, but until yesterday we’d never visited Bushy Park – the other walled royal park, this one a little further to the south and west and across the street from Hampton Court, which must have been very convenient for Henry VIII when he used it as a hunting ground.

It’s a more formal park than the managed ‘wilderness’ of Richmond Park, with planted avenues of chestnut and lime trees and centred around a great round pond with an ornate fountain.  There’s a woodland garden which snakes alongside a slow and shallow stream.  Near the Pheasantry Centre (no pheasants, but a cafe and visitor centre), it was planted with mature bald cypress, one of my favorite tress.  We didn’t explore that in full, but I’d love to go back and see that in spring when the rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom.

Bushy park

Stream and bald cypress

For us, we had to first get our heads around the scale of the park.  We’re used to the sweeping distances of Richmond Park, and what looked on the map as a long way actually was a short walk.  So even taking the long way, getting to the playground took little time.


The young navigator

We walked through a paved avenue of limes. The name of this tree has always confused me. As these trees don’t produce the kind of limes you can put in your margaritas. As I mentioned this to Simon, he said “You mean they don’t make limes?” Umm, no. One wouldn’t really expect citrus to be produced on an island this far to the north. Instead they are this kind.

Lime tree avenue

This is not the road to Margaritaville

The playground is vast and well-equipped with swings, climbing frames, a sandpit and all risk appetites are catered for with an array of slides.

Bill immediately ran to the scariest slide of all – a behemoth on which kids could (and did) actually hurt themselves (though not badly – mostly bruised bottoms and bruised pride).  He managed it quite well, but an older kid took the slide poorly and landed with a bad thump and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Bill became a bit nervous of the slide after that and demanded that Daddy accompany him.

On the big slide

The big slide


Daddy applies the hand brake

Overall, with less space and what felt like a more people, the park seemed crowded – at least in comparison to Richmond Park.   Both parks have red and fallow deer, but in Bushy Park the deer seem more habituated to humans and we were able to hand feed some young fallow deer.  In late July and early August, the male fallow deer are approachable.   Because of the dry weather, I suspect there’s less grazing and the deer are hungry.  Park visitors were stripping leaves from trees where the deer could not reach, and several of the deer would nibble from your hands.  Some of the visitors were a little less respectful than they ought to have been – as deer can be dangerous.  Although they were grateful for the leaves, they didn’t like being approached or petted from behind and would startle and jump sometimes perilously close to the person who was feeding them from the front.

Hand feeding the deer

Feeding the deer

I think we will go back to Bushy Park, but we probably won’t make it a regular trip.

At the Diana fountain in Bushy Park

The Diana fountain

Tractor week at Wisley

It’s “Mad about machines” week at the RHS Wisley botanical gardens.  We took the boy down today to see a vintage tractor parade, ride in a trailer pulled by a tractor and we queued for half an hour just so he could sit in the cab of a John Deere.  I like tractors as much as the next person, but as someone whose grandfather sold Ford tractors – making any effort to sit in one of those green monstrosities felt just a teeny bit like a betrayal.


Nothing runs like a Deere


Nothing lasts like a Ford

Almost as exciting as the vintage tractors were the vintage lawnmowers.  The boy was thrilled to “push” an 1880 model mower and roller around the field.  (Just out of frame is the man who’s pulling it along with a rope).


But most of exciting of all, at least for me, is the discovery that Wisley has installed play area!  The tractors will only be there til the 30th, but the playground is there to stay – tucked into a less visited area in the arboretum but only just around the corner from the fabulous Piet Oudolf borders and not far from the glass house. And it’s a really good one.  All still fairly new, I’m not overly impressed by the planting scheme (so far) – this could be an opportunity to show how horticultural and children’s play CAN be combined successfully.  But they may have more in the works and I really can’t grumble about the equipment, including giant logs they’ve half buried in pits – some filled with pine cones. (yes, on reflection that doesn’t sound that good and none of my pictures really came out that well – but it was really fun).  There are some great climbing frames and tunnels you can build your own teepees by adding branches to pre-constructed wooden frames.


Horticultural highlights

You might think that we didn’t even look at the flowers, and yes we spent little time this week.  But the hydrangeas are lovely, the summer border is just hitting its stride and agapanthus are brilliant throughout the gardens.

Best in Show!

My cousin won Best in Show! Way to go Armas!

MODA botanica, a floral design company in which he is a founding partner, just won Best in Show at the Philadelphia International Flower Show.

Which is all the better, because they got some dubious press based on the unfinished installation at the show.

And to be fair.. the early shots are kinda…well, un-flower-show-like. But the finished product is breathtaking.

Congratulations Armas and partners!

Scrumpy Bill

Just as Eve knew, forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.  The apple trees at RHS Wisley don’t provide the knowledge of good and evil, but for many their fruits are absolutely irresistable.

We often go to Wisley to enjoy the beautiful gardens, including the extensive apple orchards.   Beautiful during Spring, in Autumn the boughs heavy laden with fruit are not only a visual treat and fragrant with apples, but the fruit is pretty tasty, too.  (I’m told.)



Signs within the orchard advise visitors that picking fruit is strictly not allowed and that even windfall apples are used for scientific monitoring or cider.  But the sheer volume of rotting apples on the ground suggest otherwise.

The rot sets in

The rot sets in


The English are a law-abiding lot in general.  They like to queue.  They like things to be orderly.  They are respecters of rules and regulations to a degree which has occasionally seemed stifling to me (a natural born scofflaw).  But when it comes to gardens or flower shows, all that goes out the window.  Little old ladies will elbow and shove to get a better view of a show garden at Hampton Court.  The scariest moment I’ve ever had on the Underground was the press of gardening groupies shoving to get out at Sloane Square on their way to the Chelsea Flower Show.  Fortunately, extra police had been laid on. There’s also a well-known problem of keen gardeners taking a little cutting here or pinching a few seeds there from the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (of which I am a member) and the blooming borders of stately homes.

And when it comes to the apples at Wisley…

I should first add that every single person who walks through the garden gates at Wisley is outwardly respectable.  No slackers or slouchers.  Generally people dress up a bit, smart casual – as they say. These are not people who would steal produce from the grocery store or filch a newspaper or make an illegal download of an old episode of  Gardener’s World.

But the apples at Wisley, for those in the know, are irresistable. A bit of scrumping is not unknown.

From the urban dictionary (for the sensitive, please skip past the first definition)

Definition 2:  Stealing fruit, especially apples, from someone else’s trees. British. It’s considered less bad than, say, shoplifting, but adults still disapprove.

Defintion 3:  The act of stealing apples from a cider orchard. (The word comes from Scrumpy cider) This term cannot be applied to a town or city enviroment. For example you couldn’t steal a stereo and call it ‘urban scrumping’

There are different approaches to middle-class scrumping.  Some people slink between the rows of apples trees, making a quick look around to see who’s watching before furtively taking some fruit.  Some walk brazenly through the central avenues, chomping apples, juice on chin and pockets stuffed with apples for later.

Some are justifiers.  One middle-aged couple saw us picnicking in the orchard without any visible purloined fruit.   They were enjoying an apple each.  “It’s alright to pick up the windfall,” they said.

Others are instigators.  Another couple who might have been bankers or teachers or government regulators held-up some half-eaten apples “These are the most delicious apples.  It’s called Melon.  So sweet – they’re just over there.”

And us?  Well…I’d like to say that we stayed above it all and had every intention of following the rules if we hadn’t been led astray by Scrumpy Bill. This is my story, and I am sticking with it.

Bill slept through our early tour of Wisley, but I woke him up in the orchard as I wanted him to see the apples on the tree.  He was grumpy at first, but then realised he was in an apple wonderland.  He loved running through the rows of apple trees.

Trying his hand at a bit of harvesting:

Finding the perfect windfall:

We couldnt stop him.

We couldn't stop him.

And sharing the biggest apple ever:

Thats a mighty big apple

That's a mighty big apple

Viewing in Facebook, originally posted at my blog Skimming the Surface.

How does your garden grow?

As I was developing my gardening chops back in Tennesse, I began to see England as my horticultural mecca.  Oh, the cottage gardens, the RHS shows, the gardens at the grand and stately homes of the National Trust.   My co-workers and I at a garden center in Knoxville mused over the gentle mild climate and the range of plant material that can be grown.

And all these things are truly wonderful, but I guess it’s human nature to think the grass is always greener on the other side of the pond.  For example, my garden is rife with slugs.  I can’t grow my beloved hostas. (This isn’t true of all of England, but it’s definitely true in my South London garden).  And the lack of a good hot summer in recent years has meant that it’s nigh on impossible to produce a perfect, sweet home-grown tomato served up fresh, still sun-warmed seasoned with a sprinkle of salt.  (Heaven).

Slug damage

Slug damage

My last tomato crop. Delish as fried green tomatoes, but still a disappointing harvest.

My last tomato crop. Delish as fried green tomatoes, but still a disappointing harvest.

However, in terms of just plain gorgeous flowers, gardening in England is bliss.

But what’s more interesting than the difference in growing season or bloom time is the difference in gardening culture.  Clare White has posted a piece on garden blogging at Talk About Local in which she observes that front gardens are not public spaces, not places to necessarily stop and chat or to make yourself available for social interaction with your neighbours.  Instead, garden chat is done through societies and in truly public gardening spaces – i.e. allotments.

Front gardens, if you even have one (I have a moldering overgrown hedge in a narrow strip between the sidewalk and my front window) are cool boundaries.   There is some tradition in the UK of front gardens as display spaces, but by and large people’s private gardens are just that…private. Clare cites the Watching the English book by sociologist Kate Fox for an analysis of English gardening behaviour.  A great book no doubt, but I gave up on it after the first chapter revealed that I had been doing the vital social ‘weather-chat’ all wrong.

Where I grew up, there’s a porch culture and sweeping gardens are the norm.  It’s true that modern houses in modern developments are more focused on the back porch.  But in older neighbourhoods (like Fort Sanders where I started gardening) there a sidewalks and wide verandas where people can sit out the front and make themselves available for garden chat.   Serious gardeners use their front spaces for display and for informal competition.

My good gardening (and it is pretty good) is completely private.  Even my next-door neighbours can barely see how my gardening puts them to shame.  I miss the competitive and showy elements of gardening – and yet I would never re-embrace that culture here by joining an allotment (there’s probably a 50 year waiting list anyway) or a gardening society.  I’d rather the passing world notice, stop and chat – than take my produce someplace else.   I could join the yellow book, open garden scheme – but I feel my tiny garden isn’t really worth that and I don’t want people coming through my house to admire my silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row.