Sunday, 25 September 2011

A garden in September

A while ago, I wrote a post about how we'd created a roof garden here in Wapping, London.  That was almost a year ago now, and so I thought it time to write a little more about what's been happening in the garden this year and what I've been up to in the garden over the past few weeks.

Generally, this time of year is quite dull in the garden.  The tasks at hand are dead-heading and tidying and all the showy summer blooms are coming to an end.  We still have a few roses and fuschias putting in a last flash of colour, but the whole thing is starting to fade to green as autumn creeps on.

A few things, such as the mixed tub of cornus and abelia above, as coming into their own at this time of year though.  The last few abelia flowers go wonderfully against the mixed foliage.  As autumn fades, the cornus leaves will fall, leaving the bright red stems which will see through the winter until growth starts again in the spring.

Fuschias haven't proved a huge success for us over the years.  We planted this one a few  years ago, and prompted by its success we decided to stock out an entire border with various fuschias.  The first year was a wonderful riot of colour, but every year we have lost a few more plants and this year, it's rather disappointing.  They are in a sheltered spot, and so shouldn't suffer from winter winds too badly, but I guess we just struck lucky with this one, which is continuing to grow and flower well in quite an open spot.

One success story this year has been our pampas grasses.  For five years, we've had one in each garden and despite lots and lots of healthy leaves, they refused to put up any fluffy plumes.  
Finally, this year, both varieties sprung into action and we have plumes galore.   As you can see, the two different varieties have very different shaped plumes.  The one on the left is has upright conical plumes, whilst the one on the right has feather-duster-like plumes of dark beige.

Another plant which has come to life after a few disappointing years is our grapevine.  This started out in a tiny pot on our balcony in the previous flat, and when we moved, we gave it a little more space.  After a few years of half-hearted attempts at fruit, we have at least a dozen decent-sized bunches this year.  Late last year, we added a second, purple-leaved, grapevine to the garden.  It's not established enough to be fruiting yet, but given a few years, it should hopefully catch up with this one.

This year,  we planted runner beans for the second year in a row.  I took beans from last year's plants and pushed them into the ground around the garden.  As well as growing up formal beanpoles we grew them up trees, and as you can see on the right, up some buddleia.  Formalists would scream at the sight of it, but I actually like the red and white flowers from the beans scattered around the garden.  A few of the beans have already dried to a brown-y colour on the plants and I've collected the hard beans to keep in a paper bag over the winter and do the same again next year.

We had a few olives this year.  In the same way we won't be opening a vineyard, we won't be selling our own olive oil an time soon, but it's still nice to see the tree producing a little bit of fruit.  We got the olive tree from Columbia Road market when we first moved into the flat and it's grown from something of a sapling into a proper tree.  It'll be a few more years before it's woody and gnarled, but it seems to be doing quite well up on the roof here...

 Now is the time of year when some plants start to put on the buds which will give the show next year.  Garrya Elliptica (silk tassel plant) has got a covering of proto-tassels this year.  Each one of these inch-long buds will turn into a foot-long tassel of seed heads next spring.  This plant has proved quite slow-growing but worth the wait.

Leycesteria is a rather forgotten plant.  Despite being popularised in England in Victorian times, it's only in the last year or two it's come back into fashion.  As you can see on the right, at this time of year, you get wonderful dark crimson berries.  We've planted a small group of these plants overhanging one side of the pond and they have so far done very well.  They grow in a similar manner to buddleia, with new growth from the ground every spring if pruned hard.

I've always have a soft spot for Nandina Domestica (left).  We had three growing in small tubs for a few years, but as they grew pot-bound we transferred them into a long trough with a few ground-cover plants between.  Originally we were providing them with winter protection from frost, but this loses the flowers and berries from view over winter when they are at their most spectacular.  Last year we left them uncovered as an experiment and so far, so good.  They are flowering pretty well this year, which bodes well for a profusion of red berries around Christmas time.

 The largest and bravest job I've tackled this year in the garden has been to sort out the planting in the pond.  As you can see on the left, at the start of the year there was a clump of irises growing right in the middle, with little room for fish or plants to thrive.  Under the water was an even worse story, with much of the volume of the pond taken up as a mass of roots

One day, when I was feeling particularly brave, I took all of the irises out of the pond and divided the clumps.  Keeping just very healthy tubers I created new clumps.  Those plastic baskets you buy for ponds are very expensive, so instead I bought some black washing-up bowls and made holes in them.  I secured the tubers into the bowls with soft wire and sank them to the sides of the pond.  Not only has this created some space in the middle for the fish, but we've also added a bit more planting in the middle to give a nicer overall look to the pond.

It's not only the new plants which have added to the pond.  We have had this water lily for a few years, but previously it's done no more than throw up a tiny leaf every other year. But as soon as it was given a little more space in clear water, it has thrown up lots of leaves (as you can see above) and also produce its first ever flower.

 But maybe the greatest - and most unlikely - success story of our garden this year has been a very prolific agapanthus which has produced more seedlings than we know what to do with.  Every year, our agapanthus put on a great display.  Once the huge flowers have faded, you are left with seedheads like the ones to the right .  The largest agapanthus we have is one called "Enigma" which produces very large blue and white flowers.

Last year, we left the seed head over winter as an experiment.  It was around eight inches across and hanging above a patch of stony gravel.  In spring we removed the seedhead and thought nothing of it, but then as the year went on, we noticed lots of little seedlings appearing.  Very small at first, we pulled them up and they had very impressive root systems.

Each seedling started off a couple of inches across like the one shown to the left, but within the year, maybe of them have grown to have leaves eight inches long.  We have purchased a few unusual varieties to punctuate the border, but we have largely stocked a new agapanthus border purely with seedlings from the one plant.  The seedlings to the left are still growing in September 2011, and they probably won't be the last.

We have literally run out of space for these, and still have around 20 of various sizes potted up ready for a good home.  So this is a serious request - if you'd like a seedling then please drop me an email and you're more than welcome to come and take some!

So, September may be a dull time for gardening, but the garden itself still has plenty to offer, even if the summer colour is fading a bit...

Friday, 2 September 2011


This week, we've been hanging around in London. I believe the modern word for it is a "Staycation". The idea is that you treat your home town like a holiday destination - get up at a sensible time in the morning, spend a full day wandering around museums and tourist attractions and then head home in the evening.

Of course, London is the ideal place to do this - there are more museums than you could visit in a month, let alone a few days.

So, we wrote out a list of all the museums we'd never been to and thought looked interesting and groupd them together into similar areas of town so we could get around a group in a day. By Wednesday (when we finished the staycation and headed out of town for a couple of days) I did feel a little museum'd out; I had grown tired of looking at things in glass cases with little display labels - but it was good tired. The kind of tired you feel after a long but satisfying day - the kind of full you feel after a delicious but huge meal.

I'd never really thought about museums before in the abstract sense - I always concentrated on the artefacts rather than the idea of a museum itself. Over this past week, I've been to more museums in a short space of time than I ever have before, and it's led me to realise what I like and don't like in a museum.

Curating an exhibition is a skill. Exactly the same group of artefacts can be arranged into something magical or something incredibly dull. The little white label by an object can conjure up the object in use with a few carefully chosen sentences, or a paragraph of waffle can sap away all interest in even the most exciting of artefacts.

For me, a museum is about telling a story. It's about joining the dots to lead you on a journey from things you know into things you didn't know. It's about putting the items in the collection into context and using them to tell a story and paint a picture and then allowing that picture to grow in the mind of the visitor.

The Imperial War Museum is a masterclass in how to curate exhibitions. Every gallery tells a story and gives you the facts to form pictures in your mind. Even in the Holocaust gallery, the story is told factually and without providing the emotional commentary which any lesser museum may have done. The gallery was so much more interesting - and powerful - because of this.

This contrasts with the slavery exhibits at the Museum of Docklands which labours the emotional point throughout. I don't need a museum label to tell me that a torture instrument for slaves is "horrific" and I don't need a picture of "happy black people" to make the point that salvery has been abolished and that's a good thing.

The rest of the Docklands Museum was pretty good though. I guess the local interest for me (there was even a picture of home in one of the displays!) made it all the more interesting, but even so, London's history as a port is something not really covered elsewhere.

Sometimes a museum can suffer from one or two standout pieces in the collection taking the attention away from everything else. Even the greatest of museums can suffer from this - witness the number of people who go to the Louvre only to stare blankly at the Mona Lisa for five minutes and then leave. The Courtauld collection at Somerset house has something of the same feel about it. There isn't anything of the renown of the Mona Lisa in the collection, but it's hard to escape the feeling that everyone is just heading for the Van Gogh at the end and rushing past the other works. Of course, you don't have to get caught up in that, but it can generate momentum which is hard to resist. A good curator can overcome that problem, juxtaposition of famous works in amongst less-famous but similar and comparable works can actually enhance the enjoyment of the famous piece - maybe putting it next to contemporaneous works could make you realise how the quality of the work has made that piece as famous as it is, for instance.

Of course, sometimes it's unavoidable. Just like there are some albums out there with 11 dull tracks and one belter. Sometimes you just have to skip past the bad tracks and find yourself only ever listening to the same one track.

The Hunterian museum doesn't really suffer from the "standout pieces" problem. In a relatively small space, the layout is fantastic. Hundreds and hundreds of superficially similar glass jars line the shelves, and make the place fascinating and inviting to anyone with a scientific mind. The layout is such that even after you've already looked at several hundred little glass jars, you are drawn to look at the next one. It's not for the squeamish, but it again sticks to the emotionally factual presentation which pricks ones interest rather than alienates by making the subject matter somehow taboo. Sure, a preserved foetus isn't a pleasant object in its own right - but without such objects, medical science wouldn't be where it is today.

But despite my quibbles with some museums (and they are quibbles, we didn't visit a single bad museum this week) I realised that I love museums. I love learning new things, and revisiting what I already know about other things. I love to have my knowledge challenged and even visiting a museum exhibition on a subject I know well can be fascinating as it fills some of the gaps in my knowledge and helps me to draw lines between things I didn't previously know were connected.

Many museums in the UK are free these days. That is, they are free to enter - they are far from free to run. So I would urge you to do as I do. If you've learned something, or enjoyed the collection then make a generous donation on the way out. It's a small price to pay to keep these great places alive and open.