Tag Archives: Travels

The changing face of Kings Cross – the London one.

On our last day in London, we headed off to see the urban renewal project in Kings Cross. Our second daughter had lived in the area for some of her four year London sojourn so I had visited her there, in an ex-council flat. Inner city, gritty urban is how I would have described it a decade ago and I am sure large tracts of it still are. But the greening of Kings Cross has transformed the area to give it a people-friendly heart.

We have no expertise at all in urban landscape architecture and precious little in public horticulture so I make no pretence at doing anything other than trying to convey impressions of the humanising of a former industrial area.

A sandpit in Handyside Gardens

Upon entering a small precinct named Handyside Gardens, what did we see? A sandpit! A sandpit designed to be used by children. I asked the dad’s permission before photographing him with his little boy in the sand. Sure it is surrounded by tall buildings so shade must be an issue, but that is the nature of inner city living. This was an area that had been designed to give a series of intimate spaces with lots of different seating areas. Leading out from the sandpit was a rill or small canal of flowing water which looked clean and inviting for children to play in. Indeed some of the sand had made its way into the rill. “Wait til you see the fountain,” said the father in the sandpit.

And a rill, or canal

We wandered our way along, noting all the different seating areas and planting that was not out of the usual School Of Bedding Plants and Floral Clocks. These plantings are the work of Dan Pearson whom I have mentioned before although his involvement in the entire project goes well beyond just the planting plans. It is therefore no surprise that there was a mix of material which shows that pretty seasonal plantings are possible even when the brief includes functionalism and practicality. There were plenty of scented plants though a high mortality rate on recently planted trachelospermum jasminoides suggested that somebody may have planted out a whole lot of nursery stock that had been grown under cover and not hardened off.

As we walked along, we saw a few sodden children in their togs (bathing suits) and towels walking towards us. We rounded the corner and there, truly, was an amazing sight. The fountain in Granary Square. It was large and safe for playing. The seating around was occupied by parents watching their children as the water danced in sequences, sometimes stopping altogether for a brief moment, sometimes shooting high and then in waves across the area. It was magnificent. And safe fun. An urban beach, of sorts. Our kids would have stripped off and been in that water like a shot when they were young. It wasn’t exactly tropical on the day we were there but clearly kids still love water play. At night it lights up – 1000 different points of water and light.

The fountain installation in Granary Square was fantastic

A lull in the water

 

The skip garden. Look at that magnificent glasshouse made form recycled window frames on the right.

Further on we found the skip garden, a movable community garden supported by students at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Unfortunately the skip garden café was closed on the day so we couldn’t try the locally produced fare.

From there we wended our way round to the Gasholder Park, a major redevelopment utilising the old gas tanks for upmarket canal-side apartments and green space and gardens open to all. There is serious money going into this redevelopment around Kings Cross and plenty more information on line if you wish to look it up. The somewhat remarkable impression is that it is not just serious money to cater to the wealthy; it is serious planning to provide an enhanced living environment for all which seems unexpectedly inclusive in this day and age.

That is a floating nest and the background is green canal water

London has a major network of canals and Mark was shocked every time at the water quality and the rubbish. According to our London friends, ‘wild swimming’ is the rage. That is swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers and canals. We have plenty of issues with water quality in New Zealand, but all I can say is you would be a brave or drunk fool to want to swim in London canals. And you would not be wanting to enter those cesspools with any open wounds or even scratches. Maybe there will come a day when  the city canals get cleaned up and no longer used as a receptacle for rubbish. Then the birds may not line their nests with plastic waste.

There was lots more to see around the Kings Cross area but it was time for the flights home. For those who have never done it, this involves around 25 hours flying to New Zealand. It is usually done as two long haul legs of a bit over 12 hours each via Asia (or the USA if you are unlucky) or 7 hours and 18 hours via Dubai or one of the other Arabic emirates. It is not fun.

There is an album of additional photos posed on our garden Facebook page for those who may wish to see more.

A day at Wisley

An attention grabber! The Pink Pantser in the RHS Wisley glasshouse.

We like to end up our UK garden trips at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society about an hours south from London. It gives a context to what we have seen and it is interesting to look at the evolution of some of the recent plantings and reflect on styles and designers over time. The twin Piet Oudolf borders are a personal favourite. And they are certainly standing the test of time with considerably lower input than the classic double herbaceous borders. They were not without controversy when first planted in 2000. I still recall talking to an English visitor in our garden here. I commented that we were heading over to the UK to look at contemporary planting directions and he replied disdainfully, asking if we would be planting in a herringbone design as they had at Wisley.

The Oudolf borders July 2, 2017

The Piet Oudolf borders are not in fact a herringbone design and when we got to see them, they were a delight – soft rivers of colour. Those rivers give a sense of form to a garden which has no hard landscaping. In case you are interested in the background to these borders, I quote the instigator of this planting. “I started talking to Piet about these borders in 1997 with plans agreed in 98/99 with planting using 17000 9cm plug plants in Jan.2000.The only significant change to Piet’s maintenance regime was to mulch the entire borders with 6mm quarried gravel in c.2004 to a depth of c.60mm.This was `topped  up` in 2009.”

And back at the same time of year in 2014

There is considerable restraint and knowledge in the selection of plants. It is a lot more than just picking for flower colour. Obviously, compatibility in growth habits is an issue but so too is a high level of uniformity in height, an ability to stay upright without staking, repeat flowering without the need to deadhead and a succession of blooms and foliage interest from spring through to autumn. Allied to that, there is no place for dominating thugs in this type of planting, nor for prolific seeders. I would guess a fair proportion may be sterile (in other words, not setting viable seed) which usually prolongs flowering, eliminates seeding issues and keeps the plants true to type. When we did a count on our last visit, we estimated a proportion of about 3 perennials to each grass in these borders. Each river of colour is comprised of just a few different plants. I think it was looking at the composition of several rivers that led us to the 3:1 ratio. The borders have to work equally well viewed looking up or down the slope and also close up, so the individual combinations of plants are as important as the mass effect. For those readers trying to keep echinaceas going, over time these borders have apparently shown that E. pallida is short lived while E. purpurea is longer lived. It is multiple visits that help us to understand better how these plantings are put together and managed. You can never take it all in on just one visit.

Detail of one river in the Oudolf borders

I posted earlier on the Missouri Meadow as observed over our visits.  In 2014, we saw the new South African meadow in its infancy. This is Professor James Hitchmough again, as was the Missouri Meadow but in this case, the focus is on South African plants, not North American ones.

 

South African meadow 2014

and three years on in 2017

Three years on, the dominant plant at this time of the year is the eye catching Berkheya purpurea, which Mark covets for our garden. It is a thistle. The maintenance regime on this meadow is clearly more hands-off than the Oudolf borders. It will be interesting to see it again a few years’ time. With agapanthus, kniphofia, crocosmia, nerines, geraniums, eucomis, osteospermum, gazanias and more, there is quite a mix in there including a few that would be thugs in our climate. We love these meadow plantings and find the range of meadows illuminating but our London friends (one a keen home gardener) could not relate to the whole idea of a South African meadow in this context. So that was an interesting response.

These friends had recently been to Great Dixter and expressed surprise at Christopher Lloyd’s dramatic ‘subtropical’ garden being taken out and seeing conifers going back in instead. It became a little clearer when we came across the Wisley project along similar lines. The conifers are being used as a framework for subtropical plantings. This is not a combination that would ever occur to a New Zealander but we will reserve all judgement until we see the finished product. Sometimes it is good to be surprised. Conifers are long overdue a revival and who knows? Maybe a new combination will launch a new fashion. Or maybe not.

Tom Stuart-Smith plantings were a delight

There is so much more to Wisley. The Tom Stuart-Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse really appealed to us this visit. They had seemed a little ‘blocky’ and amenity in style when young. Now the combinations and the relaxed style of mature plantings is a highlight. The trial grounds included both echinaceas and nepetas as well as coloured lettuces. The national collection of rhubarb never fails to amuse – though more the concept of it than the reality, I admit. I have posted an accompanying album of more photos to Facebook again. It starts with the succulent cake and ends with the Famous Five and the issue of whether George was a boy or a girl.

Impressions of Parham – horticultural excellence

The white border at Parham

Parham was the only garden we went to on our recent trip without knowing anything about it in advance. As a result, while I have a fair number of photos and recollections, I lack an overview, a wider context. There is an interesting lesson for me there on future trips – we learn more if at least one of us does a bit of advance research on the destination. When we live so far away, making a second visit is unlikely so we need to short circuit the familiarisation step to have any hope of getting beneath the superficial.

The yellow border at Parham

That is why I only offer this as ‘impressions of Parham’. Just for context, it is a private house, garden and estate in Sussex that opens to the public. They say house. We New Zealanders are more likely to describe it as a mansion. Or stately home, at least. Big, historic – Elizabethan in fact. That is the sixteenth century one, not last century’s one who is still with us. We did not tour the house. I did not even think to photograph it. Nor did we look at the estate, a 16th century deer park and working farm, or test the on-site café which serves locally sourced food including from the garden. I can report that the plant centre had some of the best displays I have seen in a garden centre and good plants on offer and that the gift shop was better than many I have visited and not exorbitantly priced. I bought myself a souvenir – a pretty milk jug with Redoute’s roses on it.  I don’t even think we found the Pleasure Grounds. It was just the extensive walled gardens that we looked at. But, as you may gather, this is a multi-faceted operation which has to work hard to keep it financially viable and in private ownership.

There was a team of seven hard working gardeners though I can’t tell you if they are all full time. We met the head gardener because he did his apprenticeship under the eye of our friend who took us there. Britain still has an enviable tradition of training professional gardeners. I have seen a few gardeners at work when we have been out touring, and I can tell you that these Parham ones were hard workers and focused on tasks to hand.

From memory, they are required to provide 30 buckets of blooms to the big house a week. That is a huge amount and they must be hard pressed in winter. But the production of both food and cutting flowers was impressive – highly productive, in fact. Also done without chemical sprays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The herbaceous borders were another modern take on classic design and techniques. The blue border was the most recent to have had a major makeover and it certainly looked glorious. I complimented the woman in blue whom I photographed strolling through the border, for her superb choice of toning colours. The yellow border was less flowery on the day but carefully composed and  easy on the eye. The shorter white border was also at peak border perfection that the Brits can do so very well. If there was a red border, I missed it entirely but I do not think there was.

Along the back wall – for this is all contained in a walled area – were the hot, vibrant colours and combinations, many of which were designed to zing.

Some of the statuary was… very white. Not necessarily to my taste. Some were more subtle than others. This was not. I am sure there will be somebody out there who can explain the significance of this figure and the inscription he is marking out with his finger.

Railway tracks of blue nepeta that many of wish we could achieve in NZ but rarely succeed

What we saw of Parham’s gardens were predominantly herbaceous or productive and sometimes both at the same time. They were not flashy or even particularly innovative, but they were very good. It is an example of high level horticultural excellence. Presumably it is tourism, both domestic and international, that enables a private estate such as Parham to maintain this level of excellence.

If you want to see more photos and get more detail, I have matched again to an album on our Facebook page.

Postcards of Devon

The hunt dogs! Or hounds, I have just been informed (see reader comments below). Indubitably hounds. Out for a morning run on a Devon lane with their keepers on bicycles. Beautiful hounds, so very well trained and an interesting scene but still incomprehensible to me. English garden media personality and writer of steamy romantic novels, Alan Titchmarsh, may defend foxhunting on the grounds that it is, apparently, a traditional part of country life – country life, that is, as experienced by the toffs who cry ‘tally-ho’, not so much a traditional pursuit for the peasantry. But tradition alone is not a justification for anything, really.

It was interesting to be told elsewhere that the keeper of another pack of hounds had recently resigned because, he told my informant, he was worried by how often he was expected to break the law. Apparently, foxhunting may just have become more covert and is sometimes justified on the grounds of an upsurge in the population of foxes. Hmmm. The failure to institute other, more humane strategies of population control is a dubious justification for a savage method of hunting a terrified animal to the point of utter exhaustion and then letting it be torn apart, all for the pleasure of privileged humans who regard it as “sport”.

Lovely dogs, though.

The Devon roads can be notoriously narrow, though they are by no means alone in that. These roads can carry more traffic than the upgraded, single carriageway that passes by our place at home but there does not appear to be an uproar with loud demands that they be widened, straightened and allegedly made ‘safer’ for cars and trucks. It means drivers must be fully alert, dropping speed to meet the conditions, courteous and capable of backing up to the passing bays that are dotted along these roads. It is a very different ethos to the aggressive driving on New Zealand roads. If we were more defensive, tolerant and patient drivers, maybe our corner of the world would be a better place?

We went to south Devon to have another look at one of our all time favourite gardens – Wildside. More on this garden in a future post, but it is on the edges of Dartmoor. It rained on our day there, though fortunately it was not cold. There is a certain evocative gloom to the open moorland on a grey day with low light levels. Because I have always done my reading from across the world in New Zealand, the geographic location of different moors is hazy at best (though I think I have the heaths and heathers of Scottish moorland separated in my mind). I kept thinking of the likes of Daphne du Maurier but I see she set ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor which is the next one down and Dartmoor belongs to ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. But one can imagine this landscape with the bleak winds of winter blowing across it and it certainly has its own identity, including the roaming stock and lack of fencing.

While in the area, we headed over to see the RHS garden, Rosemoor. The original garden and accompanying land was gifted to the RHS by Lady Anne Berry, now a long-time resident of Gisborne. Lady Anne had been particularly kind to us in our earlier years so we were pleased to finally get to see Rosemoor. While the traditional rose garden left me unmoved, the rose and clematis combinations in the adjacent garden enclosure were a delight.

I make Mark pose for vanity photos beside what we call ‘Jury Plants’ as we come across them around the world. Part gentle boasting, part family record. In this case it is Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, bred by his father Felix and one of the first generation of variegated flaxes for home gardens. He never received a cent for it (or a penny, as it would have been back then) and is rarely credited with it. It is not easy to keep good foliage on phormiums in New Zealand so Felix moved on to astelias and then clumping cordylines in his attempts to get an extended colour range into plants with this habit of growth and foliage. Eventually, this led to our Cordyline ‘Red Fountain’ but Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ continues to hold some ground internationally.

Still at Rosemoor, the herbaceous plantings are terrific. If you are looking for a middle road between the traditional herbaceous border and the grassy new wave look of Oudolf, Stuart-Smith and New Perennials proponents, you probably end up with something closer to these Rosemoor beds and borders. Lots of vibrant colour and care with combinations, often quite tight colour toning but also lighter on plant options that need continual maintenance to keep them flowering and looking good. However, these are herbaceous plantings for large, public spaces, not so much for downscaling to the home garden. You can see more in the album on our Facebook page if you are interested.

A perfect garden?

The elliptical pool reflecting the house

Is there such a thing as a perfect garden? I would have said no until we visited a private garden in a little village in the Cotswolds. It was as close to perfect as I have seen.

Let me explain what I mean when I say perfect, by starting with what I don’t mean. I don’t mean it is the best garden that I have ever seen or the most exciting one – we don’t rank gardens like that. Nor that it is static and frozen in time. It is anything but. What I mean is that on the day we visited, it was a garden in perfect harmony where all the elements came together at the same time.

I would list those elements as:

  • the owners’ expectations, wishes and lifestyle
  • the designer and his design within the particular location
  • the plantings
  • use of colour
  • the hard landscaping
  • the underpinning infrastructure,
  • the maintenance of the garden
  • and the incidents of surprise and delight.

All these elements were in balance, to an extent that I have not seen before. There were no jarring notes.

The designer is Dan Pearson, a gentle tour de force in the contemporary gardening scene. He has a strong focus on enhancing nature by working with it, bringing a naturalistic philosophy to his gardens.

To set the scene, from memory the owners told us it is an acre in size. It is flat and Pearson took it back almost to a blank canvas. With the typical Cotswold two-storeyed cottage in the local golden stone being on the road side of the site, the body of the garden has four distinct sections, three of which feature water. The first is by a charming stream boundary and centres on a large elliptical pool with restrained plantings. The second is a formal garden built around a canal, with a dining area closest to the house. The third is the most spacious and contains a swimming pool. It was apparently the first garden Pearson had done that included a swimming pool and he was not keen. I can understand why. Pools are awfully difficult to integrate without turning it into the Miami look. But this pool was beautifully executed, though that is easier when you don’t have our laws requiring childproof fencing close in on all swimming pools.

The fourth area contains contemporary block plantings adjacent to another outdoor entertaining area.

The swimming pool and meadows

 

The canal garden

There is a feeling of timelessness, particularly in the canal garden, that I attribute to the proportions the designer has brought to the space. We had been thinking about issues of space, proportions and symmetry in Italy the week before. It is those which make classic Italian gardens classic. Looking at it in a much smaller-scale domestic garden reinforced the view that this is what you can get if you choose the right designer. The key word is “can”. It is not guaranteed from all designers but I will say that it is even rarer to see an amateur gardener achieve this. That confident use of space and proportion underpins everything but done really well, it is not obvious.

What I call the ‘hidden infrastructure’ of the garden is well camouflaged to the point where it was not apparent at all. Again, attention to detail is paramount. There is no pond lining visible on the elliptical pool. I asked and the pool is made the old fashioned way, presumably with clay lining to remove the need for an unsightly pool liner. I did not spot a single skerrick of plastic anywhere in the garden. No cheap solar powered lights either.  There were no visible hoses hanging about, no clumsy afterthoughts of garden edgings. The swimming pool filter was housed out of sight. The motorised pool cover was near to silent and the wiring was hidden. The compost bins and inevitable wheelie bins were discreetly housed. Everything had been thought of. We fall well short of that in our own garden but we admire the impressive attention to detail.

Look at the attention to detail on the dry stone walls

The visible infrastructure – more commonly called the hard landscaping – was beautifully executed to the highest of standards. Just look at the wonderful oak-framed arrow slits in the new stone wall.

The maintenance of the garden was unobtrusive but immaculate. Britain has a long, enviable tradition of training professional gardeners. Not for them the experience of the self-claimed garden maintenance contractors. An Auckland friend ruefully noted recently that “The woman doing my “gardening” was moved to “prune” my daphne last month. I will have a daphne-free winter.” These are high level skills that keep this Cotswold garden in peak condition and true to the original vision while meeting the owners’ expectations. There is a wonderful eye for detail and a sure hand in knowing what to leave and what to ‘edit’, as is said in modern parlance.

Roseraie de l’Hay, I think 

The plantings were botanically varied but more restrained than the current UK fashion for large and vibrant perennials in ever more shocking colour combinations – and probably easier to live with for that. But I appreciated the unexpectedness of colour – the bright golden aquilegias and the  yellow Clematis tangutica, the latter combined with red crocosmia. A less bold planting would have gone for the safe but cliched option of the white rugosa, Rosa Blanc Double de Coubert, rather than the bold, deep cerise of what I assume is Roseraie de l’Hay.

This is a garden of charm, restraint and timeless elegance. It has the good bones that may allow it to endure down the decades. On the day, for us, it was simply a delight of gardening perfection.

Again, I have posted an additional album of photos on Facebook for those who would like to see more pictures around the garden.

Even the wheelie bins and compost bins were screened from view by dry stone walls.