Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Stopping by Woods

As gardeners we can learn so much from the natural rythms all around us.

My cycle route takes me along the river Yar, where a ribbon of deciduous woods flanks the river on one side and the farmland on the other. To the sound of the curlew and sandpiper piping through the woods my attention was caught by the repeated patterns of vegetation mile upon mile.

Young hazels, willow and oaks formed the structure, with just a glimpse of catkin and tight coppery bud waiting to emerge. Ground ivy covered most of the marshy earth and in places reached for the sky, growing up into fallen branches and the taller trees, twining amongst liguana -like honeysuckles. Brackish pools appear randomly amongst the fallen leaves with escaping streams leaching out their precious gift of water into the surrounding vegetation. Whispering rushes guard these, forming an inpenetrable edge to the river. The early morning light washes over their feathery tops, changing tone with the seasons. Endlessly fascinating, wave upon wave as the wind brushes over them.

Clearings with fallen logs invite me to stop and stare - or play like many families do, so that their children can explore the wonder of the quiet glades. What can be more magical in a young child's eyes than tiny woven paths through vegatation, with logs to scramble over and hidden plant treasures peeping out from dark corners?

Stands of the glossy leafed evergreen fern, Asplenium scolopendrium punctuate this with their bold foliage. Strap-like leaves of iris foetidissima form further aysmmetric groupings in the clearings. In design terms we would talk of 'ground cover' and 'architectural specimens'!

The simplicity of this woodland planting can be echoed in our own garden plantings, especially in those wild boundary areas. Why, the endless formal hedge or cuprinol stained fence? A natural planting like this will not only please the eye, but provide home to much wildlife as well. Shade loving ornamentals and bulbs can be added to create further interest if desired.

My joy at this scene is yet to be heightened as I know that concealed and sheltering among the leaves are mile upon mile of primroses and my favourite, the celandines. Come spring they will highlight the path just like cats eyes in a road.

This truly is a lesson in 'less means more'.

© Chris Barnes

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Sunday, 17 January 2010

Sweet brown crumbly soil...

After the snow, then the rain and mist - at last a dry day, tempting me out into the garden. With a real chance for some hands on digging!

I am blessed with a light free draining soil ( better not brag too much!) which means that even after the wettest conditions I can get on the soil without doing too much damage. As we are off to New Zealand in two weeks I am keen to get in as much time as possible this month. Mad March will be upon us with all its joys and endless 'to do lists' so I have learnt to get ahead where I can.

Alternating between cutting back top growth or frost damaged leaves with some serious weeding in the vege patch is a good way of protecting aches and strains on the back. Having had two 'frozen shoulders' I now make sure I never over-fill my wheelbarrow and make small and often trips to the compost heap. This is very good advice and I recommend it to anyone, particularly if you are suffering from postural problems.

I am a bit concerned that my municipal compost may also be harbouring a new aggressive annual weed that I have to wage war on. Make a mental note, to identify and track the source of it. Everything else is relatively easy, particularly the self sown marigolds with which I feed my compost heap, knowing more will germinate in time for spring companion planting. I would not be without calendula officinalis in the garden. I love sprinkling its bright orange petals amongst salads which adds a real zing to the presentation.

Cleared a decent amount, whilst zoning in to the other chores that must be done before I leave. Chief among them, getting the last of the bulbs potted up, then getting the new potatoes in egg boxes ready to be chitted while we are away. This year I am going to grow them in large black pots as I have used all my space in the garden.

All I need is 2 hours a day, and I'll be sorted .....

© Chris Barnes

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Snow Wight

Snow across the countryside has brought many pleasures to those fortunate enough to play in it but spare a thought for the wildlife!

More than ever, we are grateful for our various bird feeding stations around the garden and are topping them up daily as large flocks of tits and finches are giving them a bashing. Bird watching has never been easier, watching robins and blackbirds bickering under the bird feeders, taking on any random newcomers like the fieldfares and redstarts that are now sheltering in domestic gardens whilst they can find nourishment. I make a mental note to include more stations and encourage all my clients to do likewise....

As the snow begins to melt and we slip into the grey sludge days after the brilliant blue I am beginning to take stock of some gardening losses. Trying not to get too depressed I notice that my echium has succumbed and that a specimen Echevera 'Schwarzkop' is looking decidedly frost damaged. It is under cover of the porch but the air temperature and wind chill factor have clearly contributed to the problem.

Here on the southerly Isle of Wight I tend to take a gung-ho attitude to frost protection, testing the limits of hardiness of some plants and sticking to my plant choices. But my mother earth voice is whispering, perhaps I should have used some horticultural fleece!

Retreating to the warmth of the office I have instead decided to update my website and create some new pages and a gallery. This is a much more heartening activity. Scanning last years projects I have surprised myself with the changes that occur between the 'before' and 'after' pictures. Definitely good for the soul!

© Chris Barnes

Monday, 11 January 2010

Planting Seeds of Success - Isle of Wight County Press Interview

Chris Barnes; Garden Designer, Plantswoman, Lecturer

How long in your present field?

15 years

What attracted you to this type of work?

The sheer and utter joy of creating beautiful gardens whilst working outside in the natural world.

What was your education like?

From St. John’s Primary School, Sandown to the first intake at Brockenhurst 6th Form College, with a few schools in between . I had some great teachers who inspired me to believe in lifelong learning but the careers advice was naff!

The pinnacle was going to College in Weymouth where I met my husband and my life-long friends .

How well do you think it prepared you for life/work?

Well, whilst at Brockenhurst studying for my A levels my parents ran a pub in Lymington during the heyday of the IOW Festivals. One prepared me for life and the other for work! At Weymouth we were thrown in at the deep end – within 5 weeks confronting a class full of children. The initial drop out rate was quite high…

What was your first job? Casual/Career?

A string of casual jobs from stable hand, waitress, bar maid to stall holder in Lymington Market. Me and my Gran had a thing going with crocheted accessories!!!

My first ‘proper’ job was as a Medical Secretary at a Child Guidance Clinic at the Belgrave Hospital for Children in London. I worked for Anna Freud and Melanie Klein (oblivious to their impact in the world of psychotherapy) but fascinated by their work. I was encouraged to go on to work with young people.

What was the significant choice/breakthrough that got you onto your career path?

Well, Horticulture is my second career and what made me make the big career switch choice was - Redundancy! Both my husband and I lost our jobs within 2 months of one another. . There is nothing like facing the abyss of unemployment to make you take a big jump.

What do you like about your job?

I mostly have to pinch myself that I am paid to design gardens. I am fascinated by plants and planting and love creating, building and experimenting with planting combinations. I still do it in my sleep…( sad but true….) Coming to it as a second career I have to make up for lost time…But I also like helping other people to fulfil their own gardening dreams and connecting them with the joys that growing plants can bring.

What advice would you give to a young person starting out?

Find a knowledgeable gardener and learn all you can from them. Read all you can, visit gardens everywhere, study the natural world and just get going, sow seeds, plant vegetables, grow borders – never be afraid to experiment. Horticulture is a joyous, optimistic activity in a rather jaded world.

What sort of hours do you work? How does that fit in with your family/social life?

When I ran my plant nursery I worked all the hours under the sun. My family helped but there were many long, wet, cold and lonely days when I had to tough it out. Nowadays, as I just focus on Garden Design I have regained weekends and reclaimed a social life. But, oh I do miss the abundance of the nursery and the inexplicable thrill of seeing row upon row of fresh young plants lined up.

How do you relax outside of work?

I love the natural world and so walking, cycling, swimming are great physical activities for me. I practise the Pilates technique to keep my back in good shape but a recent passion is singing! And I have been known to enjoy the odd glass of chilled white!

What skills do you think are important to your work?

Many things, but top of my list is a good eye for detail and a sense of place so that gardens sit comfortably within their surroundings. Trusting your knowledge of plants and planting combinations is also very important.

How do you think you make a difference at work?

I’m a good communicator. Working in education taught me this and it is very important in the sustainable aspect in garden design. Building beautiful, environmentally sensitive gardens that are attractive to wildlife and to people, encourages a connection with the soil and the sense of happiness that gardening brings.

What sort of thing do you wear for work? Favourite outfit?

I recycle my son’s old surfing clothes – they are great for gardening, and a lot more colourful than a boring old wax jacket! I rely on my Brasher walking boots though for comfort and waterproof feet!

Do you have any useful grooming tips?

Yes, get a great hairdresser! She may discover strange gardening debris in your hair so you need her on your side and to keep your secrets…

What is your favourite place on the Island?

That’s easy…Freshwater Bay, where I have lived for the past 26 years. After a hard day’s work in the summer it’s lovely to walk down and swim. In the winter just a walk and blow away the day’s troubles.

Where would you like to go on holiday this year/next year?

Being an Islander I like discovering other Islands. I am slightly obsessed with New Zealand but Cornwall is a spiritual home too and anywhere with stunning wild flowers is top of my wish list.

Garden Diary

January 1st 2010

A late start after the revelries of New Years Eve. However, through bleary eyes we realised it was a stunning crispy winters day – perfect for walking off the excesses….and taking stock. Frosty in the garden, so just stood and admired the effect of whitened cobwebs on the sedum heads and miscanthus. Backlit through frost they are stunning!

More mole activity in the lawn and along the borders with Barney and I taking two different approaches. His mind is on death, mine on the beautiful crumbly soil….

In receipt of two fabulous gardening/cookery books. Dan Pearson’s ‘Spirit’ and Nigel Slater’s ‘The Kitchen Diaries’. Both inspiring me in very different ways….Plus the Chiltern Seeds Veg Book and a new Knoll Gardens Grasses Catalogue. What quality reading, I feel I have all the bases covered now…

January 2nd

A strange observation…when will the little fruit flies die in the compost heap? Remnants are still there as I make my daily trip with all our recyclables…today the stiff evergreens from the Christmas table posy. The only holly with berries still on it, as the blackbirds have stripped both my holly trees.

A walk is planned through Ventnor Botanic Gardens to Steephill Cove and beyond to Ventnor beach. Everyone still on holiday making the most of this dry interlude after the endless wet of November.

January 3rd

In answer to my own question - three full nights of below zero temperatures have seen off the fruit flies in the compost bin. I must admit to being rather obsessed with my compost bin. I feed it like my life depends on a boiler to keep an engine going. It seems to be both a simplistic and symbolic an activity in these anxious times about our depleted resources on the planet. I am almost obsessive about bio-degradeable materials and will remonstrate with my sons, if an egg shell or teabag ends up in the wrong bin.

Stripping the Xmas Tree and making the annual trip to the recycling centre brings this matter into sharp relief. Apart from the shredded material being used as a mulch in Ventnor Botanic Gardens, the only innovative use I have recently seen is as a dune restorer in the North East. Too far for us, so for now I stick to the general recycling bin. I just love real Christmas trees, already have a dogwood, twinkley effect sculpture all year round in my sitting room and hold a snobby plants woman’s prejudice about potted conifers! Besides, I am trying to cut down the amount of plants in pots to save on my water bills too. If anyone has any further imaginative suggestions, please let me know.

What a joy Ventnor Botanic Gardens continues to be. Even on the coldest of days the Euryops were flowering their socks off on the South African terraces. Little rays of golden sunshine radiating out towards the blue winter skies. Further along, the tree ferns in the Antipodean dell were also looking lush and healthy, and served to remind us of our imminent trip to New Zealand. On our way back from the cove we came in via the New Zealand Garden and noticed the refreshed and new plantings there…

In the kitchen garden I made a further note about what was surviving the cold weather. Slim pickings really, and not enough for a meal, more of a garnish. Leeks, Rocket, Parsley, Cavalero Nero (very small) Marigold seedlings in abundance, Globe artichoke foliage looking ravishing and the remains of the Rainbow Chard, still bright in the stems but with sulking foliage. What a fantastic plant they are though in both the kitchen and ornamental garden. They really do offer something for every season.

I have some garlic still to plant and some very late bulbs, which I will now put in pots.

© Chris Barnes

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