Flowers of the Lost Coast

Over the summer me and the other gardener hired a VW camper from a very nice man in San Francisco and drove north to the Lost Coast of California. 'Lost' because it's the only section of the US Pacific coast that isn't flanked by Highway 1. The terrain is just too rough for a main road to follow the coastline, so Highway 1 bends inland, leaving the Lost Coast sparsely populated and very hard to get to. 

It's a fascinating place - wild, and very isolated. It looks idyllic in the photos, but it was actually blowing a gale, and fog is far more common than sunshine. On top of that, the waves were so big that swimming would have been suicidal. It's a far cry from a day-trip to the British seaside.

We hiked a small part of the Lost Coast Trail - a 24-mile trail that hugs the sea, and is total wilderness throughout. You have to carry a tide table with you, as at high tide parts of the trail are impassable. 

The coast was everything we'd hoped for. Savage, but startlingly beautiful. Huge chunks of driftwood littered the beach - but no litter at all. Sea Lions basked on the black volcanic sands. And despite the fact it was far from peak wildflower season in spring, flowers were everywhere - in the hills, lining the tiny stream beds, and along the shore. I've no idea what most of them are, but a lot looked like wild relatives of late summer perennials.

I've made a pact to go back, but with a tent this time.

Many many more photos below the break.


How to grow your own... wine

My Dad likes wine. He also likes making stuff. So one day he and a friend decided to see if they could make wine.

Luckily he lives in sunny California - where vines grow a bit better than here in South London.

As you can see, they got a bit carried away. My Dad and his friend Bill terraced the entire of the side of a hill next to Bill's house and covered it with vines. Then installed a bespoke irrigation system. It was a massive undertaking.

Until their vines start producing fruit they're buying in grapes and making wine in my Dad's basement. They have lab coats and everything. I sampled a bit, and it actually tastes pretty good. Definitely a step up from the beer he used to brew from a kit in a plastic barrel in our garage when I was growing up. That just tasted of the seventies - nasty.

I'm looking forward to sampling wine made from the fruits of his own vines. Something tells me they'll have plenty of it.


Our side border, or as we call it - the border of death

Digging the Border of Death from Tom on Vimeo.

Ever since we've been here this side border has been known as 'The Border of Death'. It's got our house on one side, and a fence on the other, so it basically never sees the sun. It's waterlogged in winter and bone dry in summer. It's where plants go to die.

So taking the advice of a very nice lady at the Chelsea Flower Show last year we decided to do the only thing we could. Improve the soil. So we built a new high wall of wooden railway sleepers, then ordered a tonne of topsoil and a tonne of compost to fill the new bed.

I spent an entire weekend shifting it onto the border without a wheelbarrow. Not the brightest of ideas - I could hardly move the following day. And to top it off, there wasn't quite enough soil. So there's more lifting and shifting to do. Combined with a sharp trim of the shrubs to get a bit more light, hopefully we'll have a fully functional new border. Now we just have to find some plants to fill it. But that's the fun bit...

The border as it was. Barren, and very unhappy.
Compacted, bone dry heavy clay soil.

First step - the railway sleeper wall.
The soil - arriving by crane.

Two bags. A lot of work. But worth it! See the video at the top for the end result.


A modest harvest

I've been asked to document this weekend's harvest. In part because getting anything out of the vegetable garden at all with the weather this year feels like a total result. But mostly to out-smug some close relations of my co-gardener. She has a fiercely competitive streak when it comes to growing vegetables, and photographic proof of produce is the best way to show her clear superiority in the green fingers department.

It made for a delicious salad and a small but very tasty pudding.


There's a fox in the garden, what am I gonna do...

Ideally sung to the tune 'There's a rat in my kitchen what am I gonna to do'...

By UB40.

You know the one:

I can't quite work out if this is the equivalent of posting lots of pictures of my own cats. But this guy was very cute. I've restricted myself to three pictures only. I took about 30. 

I'm not proud.


Decking - better in black

Black decking... for a similar look just burn the existing decking.
BIG CHANGES here in the clay garden. Instead of my usual tinkering with plantings I've pulled my finger out and got round to some structural things we've been meaning to do for a while. More to come in a later post. For the moment though here's the first major change. Our decking has been a standard brown ever since we've been here. But no more. We decided to paint it a dramatic black. I say we - the other gardener was the painter (and colour chooser I might add). I just moved the pots.

It's a bold look. I wasn't totally convinced to begin with, but I'm starting to like it. It sets off green foliage nicely with the pots back on it and makes the garden look a bit more designed and thought about. Although strangely, looking at these photos I've started to miss the shabby peeling brown - felt friendly for some reason. Before and after pics below. 

Before - with all the plant pots on it.

More before - in case you didn't know what decking looked like up close

And after - austere, but better once the pots are back on it.


These are a few of my favourite plants...

The flower garden has been a bit disappointing this year. It started off pretty well with some lush green growth thanks to the rain, but hasn't really come into its own since then. The timing seemed to be out - there have been a few stand out plants coming good in dribs and drabs, but no real crescendo where the entire garden's looked great.

Of the new plants I've grown this year, the brown foxglove Digitalis Ferruginea has been a keeper. It's glossy leaves look good all year round, and although it didn't flower for very long, it's flower stalks are still upright now and looking rather stately in their decay.

Digitalis Ferruginea - in early August
But there are two plants that have done well every year we've been here, and will always be in any garden I have. The first is Persicaria Amplexicaulis 'Firetail'. It is indestructible - surviving in the most impossible places, whether sun or part-shade. It grows explosively - and can swamp delicate neighbours - but if it's next to plants that can stand up for themselves, the Persicaria will mould itself around them, really gelling a border together. It flowers continuously from late summer until the first frosts - after which it collapses in a heap.

Persicaria Amplexicaulis 'Firetail'
The other is the globe thistle - Echinops Sphaerocephalus. This is the species I think - you can get lots of cultivars which to my mind are smaller and less dramatic. Again it's strong as an Ox, doesn't mind drought, and has lots of flowers that bees love. You often find bumblebees lying on the flowers with their legs in the air apparently in a state of bliss. It's leaves are huge and very prickly - and by the time it flowers they can be a bit of a state - so it's best grown behind something else. But the stalks and heads will stand all winter - and really help give the winter garden structure.
Echinops Sphaerocephalus - aka Globe Thistle



I have just bought a tripod. It's going to change my world. OK, maybe it won't change my world, but it will mean I spend even more time looking at the micro world in our clay garden. I may try some night-time shots with a very slow shutter speed. Or maybe even some timelapses. The possibilities are literally endless.

Some of the first shots I took with it are these tendrils of a butternut squash that were catching the evening light. These little coils grow in a deeply weird and interesting way - as scientists have only recently discovered according to this article.

Never say you don't learn anything from this blog.


Red hot chilli farm

Who knew chillis could look so pretty! I was in Devon not long ago, and popped into the South Devon Chilli Farm. It's a stones throw from where I grew up, and it seems to get bigger every time I go back. They grow all their chillis in a series of poly tunnels, which aren't open to the public, but they but also have a show tunnel that's open to everyone that showcases a bewildering variety of chillis. I've never visited when they are fruiting before, and it was stunning - makes me want to give them a go next year. It also makes me want a massive poly tunnel, but that's a whole other story.

Oh, and by the way, their chipotle chillis, and chipotle salsa are both totally addictive.

Loads more pics below the break... I'm afraid I didn't note down which chillis were what.


In your FACE bad summer!

Think you can beat us down with your rain and your cloud and your rain and your total lack of anything resembling summer? do you??

Well you can't, and despite it being THE WORST SUMMER EVER ON RECORD IN THE HISTORY OF EVERYTHING here's some ripe (YES RIPE) tomatoes grown OUTSIDE to prove it.

Sorry about the caps. I'm a bit excited.


Tiger Tiger burning bright

I saw this lovely fella tonight on my nightly check of the garden having a little drink from our Joe Pye Weed. It was so spectacular I got a bit obsessed trying to work out what it was. It  had the most gorgeous ochre colouring under it's wings, and when it opened it's wings out fully it looked more like a butterfly.
Eventually I think I found it. It looks like a Jersey Tiger Moth. It's a 'scarce' moth apparently - it only lives in the South West and weirdly here in London too.

I put a lot of effort trying to  grow plants that insects like, and I love it when it pays off!


Fence part 2

I know that you've all been on tenterhooks to find out how the fence turned out. Well wait no more.

We painted it with a dark grey decking paint, then ran wires across from the top of the fence to the house in a sort of loose canopy or pergola, using sailing turnbuckles to tighten the wire. Honeysuckle, and kiwi should eventually scramble over it.

The wiring took a few hours but couldn't have been easier.


Well it's been a while since I last updated this - I've had my hands full finishing a TV project. But now I'm back - with a garden that, despite this weird summer is actually not looking that bad.

More to come, but for the moment here's a picture of something I really didn't expect to find in a London garden with no water anywhere near it. Isn't he a stunner?


Cliveden House

Last weekend I visited Cliveden House - a National Trust property with a very racy history. Built in 1666 by the Duke of Buckingham as a hunting lodge, it ended up housing his mistress, and many years later played a key role in the very British sixties scandal the Profumo Affair.

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But I wasn't interested in any of that - I was interested in the gardens. They are enormous, and even on a long walk I wasn't able to see them all. The ultra formal parterre (above) was very impressive, but not really my cup of tea. There was lots more to see though; I watched a heron gulp a large carp down in one go in the middle of the Japanese water gardens (no photo sadly - I was too busy watching); their herbaceous borders are massive, and doubtless will be great later in the year, but it was their secret garden that really appealed to me. An enclosed area with statues, and very modern planting - swathes of grasses, poppies, bronze fennel and other perennials that look good now, but will look even better later in the year.

I did come away feeling thankful that I don't have to look after that much lawn though.

Pictures below the break!


An accidental extra bed

View from above showing the weird irregularly shaped patch of lawn on the top right.
I got a bit carried away with this. I wanted to move some of our perennials around - mostly to give one of my favourite plants - Selinum Wallichianum - a better chance of survival than in a desert-dry border underneath our silver birches. But before I knew it I'd run out of space. So on the spur of the moment I decided to add another flower bed, and turn our patch of lawn on the right into more of a circle. 

The circle looks a bit more balanced I think, and of course it give us even more room for plants. For the moment I've filled it with some drought tolerant Sedums, loads of annual seeds (Californian Poppies, normal poppies, and Ammi Majus) and and the giant Echinops Sphaerocephalus, as well as a globe artichoke. The planting will change, but it's a start, and echoes some of the other plantings in the garden.

Give me a few more years and the lawn will totally disappear. And good riddance to it. I hate mowing anyway.

The new border is on the left, and another enlarged section is on the right making the lawn more circular.


Beautiful Brassicas

Cabbages: not just good for greens.

For two years in a row now we've left our overwintered cabbages (Cavolo Nero since you ask) to shoot and flower in the spring. What once were humble greens throw up these huge plumes of bright yellow flowers, and when the sun's out they absolutely hum with bees.


Foxy friends

Fox fur - perfect camouflage for a patch of strawberries... if they're ripe.

This handsome guy is in our garden almost every day. Sometimes he curls up in the herb bed, but this is his favourite spot - in the strawberry patch. We've grown very fond of him, but at some point we'll have to try and persuade him to sleep somewhere else. He leaves behind a distinct smell, and I don't really fancy fox flavoured strawberries.

And off he goes...
I'm going to send my sighting in to Channel 4's new Foxes Live project (and not just because the company I work for are making the series - I'd love to know more about what our urban foxes get up to).


A new fence - before and after

Last year we did a lot of work to the inside of our little council flat, and having done that, we're finally starting to do a bit more in the garden. First up a brand new fence/screen for our little area of decking.

This is what it looked like originally:

The Old Fence. Scruffy.

I'd cobbled it together from old scraps of wood and a scaffolding pole. It had it's charm, but the honeysuckle was getting way too big for it, and it didn't really give us any privacy from the block of flats behind us.

So we bought three sturdy 2x3 inch wood poles, and sunk them into the ground, using postcrete at the bottom to give them more stability. I'd never used postcrete before, but it seemed pretty simple - just pour it in the hole the pole sits in and add water. The first pole is a little wobbly - but the other two are steady as a rock. I only put them down about a foot, as I didn't want to disturb the border behind them too much.

Old fence still there, posts concreted in position.
Next I cut to length lots of very rough 2x1 inch strips, and screwed them into the posts on either side alternately. I left them slightly more than 2 inches apart so you can see a bit through the screen. This is the first side going up:

Rear side on - with the old fence still in place.

And then the rear side, and a beam at the top:

The (nearly) finished fence. The old honeysuckle is still there - just draped on the border in front.

The real labour of love was cutting off the honeysuckle from the old screen. I was all for hacking it to the ground, but the other gardener has a lot more patience than me, so it survived.

Now all we have to do is paint the whole thing with protective wood stain to protect the wood, and then add wires across from the top to the side of the house to make a sort of pergola. It was pretty easy to put up - but took me three weekends in total.

From the other side it looks enormous. Means we're totally hidden though now - which is exactly what we wanted.


2011 Roundup

Before we get too far into 2012 I thought I'd share last season's veg-growing successes and failures in one giant wordy post. 

On the whole the summer crops weren't a huge success, but we did better at planting winter crops this year, and made better use of our confined space by making sure as soon as one crop finished, we put another one in its place. It wasn't all roses though...


Snow Day

If there's one thing the internet needs it's more pictures of cats. So here you have it. A picture of one of ours. He likes the snow - I think he knows that it sets off the white in his coat and whiskers. 

It's been a mostly mild winter, so this cold patch was very welcome. Kills a few bugs, and makes it feel like there's actually been a season between Autumn and Spring.