Wednesday, 1 August 2012

SUMMERTIME: going for gold

Summertime: London 2012 is here at last and we've all got gold fever.  Shame the sun's not been shining much this summer but even on an typically overcast London day you can bring a touch of Olympic gold to your garden with some winning plants - great for colour and great for basketry.

  Torch song: Kniphofia also known as torch lilies - as illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'

I was thrilled to see massed plantings of one my favourite summertime plants, Kniphofia, drifting in swathes throughout the Olympic park at Stratford.  The designers must have been aware of the Olympic connection in choosing this plant - also known as the red-hot poker or torch lily. Never truly red, the flowers come instead in shades of orange, gold, cream and even green.  I love the soft apricot shade of this variety growing happily in my south-facing front garden.  I plant them for their long floppy leaves which are great for cordage or twined basketry.  Although they can look a bit of a mess in winter the dead leaves help protect the plant from frost damage so pull them off in spring when the new growth begins.  Torch lilies are also a must for attracting bees and house sparrows who love to drink the sticky nectar so you can combine basketry and wildlife gardening.

The red stems of Salix alba 'Britzensis' - perfect for an Olympic torch

I got the chance to make an Olympic torch earlier this year, not from torch lilies, but from willow cut from the garden of renowned basket maker Olivia Elton Barratt.  Along with fellow members of Hertfordshire Basketry I spent a sunny day in late winter cutting the many colourful varieties Olivia has planted including this fabulous flaming red Salix alba 'Britzensis'. 

           Several colourful willow varieties cut and left to condition in a shady place for a few weeks    before weaving

Herts Basketry, , a group of makers who meet regularly in Welwyn Garden City to run workshops and swap and share basketry tips and materials, had been asked by Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton to make an Olympic-themed willow installation for their walled garden.  Stockwood was to be the overnight resting place of the Olympic torch on its way to London and teams from Tunisia and Ivory Coast would use its athletics facilities.  In  addition to two torches it was decided to make six life-size figures representing the sports of swimming, cycling, athletics, football, weightlifting and gymnastics. 

                                               Blue skies and a sunny picnic in March!

Once the willow was perfectly conditioned and ready to weave Team HB met up over several weekends to make the figures and torches.  Working to designs by Elaine Kingsford and using a two-dimensional, random, inter-weaving technique developed by Hazel Godfrey, over fifteen members each did their bit.

Team effort: Maggie Smith, Caz Ingall, Miriam Fraser and Harriet Riddel working on the gymnast and footballer in the chicken shed.

At first I chickened out of working on the figures in the cool of the disused chicken shed provided as a workspace by member Jane Ingall.  Preferring instead to work outside in the spring sunshine I joined Geraldine Poore and together we synchronised our making to get the torches as near as possible identical. 

HB member Geraldine Poore proving that a three-week manicure will stand up even to an eight hour day of willow work.

We decided to add the flames once the torches were installed to make them easier to transport and saved the most vibrant of the Britzensis stems for whoever got the job of 'lighting' our torches. 

Back in the shed it was fascinating to see work in progress whenever we went in for a well earned cuppa and a slice of Cherry Carter's 'friendship' cake.  There's something about basketry and cake that just works - a winning combination!

                                                  The swimmer outlined in brown willow

 The footballer scoring gold with me - I just love the vibrant immediacy of work-in-progress

                                         The cyclist is almost finished but where's the bike?

Norma Adams getting to grips with the wrestler


                             Tricia Fraser and Jan Watkins on a winning streak with the runner

Caz and Harriet almost ready to score with the footballer

Maggie putting finishing touches to the gymnast's red leotard - must mean she's from gold-medal winning Team America

We all fell for the weightlifter - our incredible Hunk! - just waiting for some weights

Later, I was pleased to get the chance to do a bit of interweaving on the swimmer's head and shoulders.  Hmm, doesn't look much like Tom Daley - yet!

After a winning team effort and a fitting example of co-operative working, the figures were installed at Stockwood in plenty of time for the Olympic opening ceremony and this coming Saturday all the members of Team HB are invited for a champagne toast to our Willow Winners.  Oh and there'll be cake too, of course. Cheers!

You can visit the Stockwood Discovery Centre and see the installation for yourself - entry to the walled garden is free and the figures will be there until October 2012.  For those who can't make it to Luton I'll be up-dating this post later with more photos of the finished work in-situ.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Roses grow on you

As the late, great, gardening guru Christopher Lloyd once wrote, the best way to fill your garden with plants is to 'find out what grows well for you and grow lots of it'.  Well, it's taken a good few years of trial and error in the heavy clay soil of my south-east London back garden to find out that in June and July what grows best for me is -  roses.

Ironically, it was Lloyd himself who controversially dug up his late mother's rose garden at Great Dixter, to plant an exotic garden full of sizzling, sun loving annuals and tender perennials.  If only I could have done the same!  Roses don't mind my clay soil which, although back breaking to dig, can be rich in nutrients. But that's not all I have to contend with.  My back garden is also North-facing, shady and, in most summers, very, very dry.  The north facing aspect came with plot and there's nothing can change that; it means there's sun only from February to October.  The shade is partially self inflicted - I would have a fig tree.  Ripe figs for breakfast is my idea of earthly paradise.  The drought is a combination of summer hose-pipe bans and the next-door-but-one neighbour's pestilential Eucalyptus tree.  These notoriously thirsty antipodean thugs were planted in Botswana to clear a swamp and now they've got a desert!  I rejoice that anything at all will grow but have had to accept that sun-lovers would soon begin to sulk and tender exotics wouldn't stand having their feet in sodden, wet, winter clay. So, I've learnt to love roses.  If they're not your cuppa tea look away now!

Here's a chocolate box selection of some the different varieties I've found will tolerate those most difficult of  conditions: dry, partial shade.
From top left to right: Madame Legras de St Germain (Alba shrub), Albertine (rambler), Maiden's Blush (Alba shrub), Tuscany Superb (Gallica shrub), Charles de Mills (Gallica shrub), New Dawn (climber), Constance Spry (climber), Paul's Scarlet (climber), Climbing Lady Hillingdon, Zephyrine Drouhin (climber), Iceberg (climbing).

I've been pretty lucky with my selection - chosen for a combination of scent, colour, flower-form, habit and, in some cases, just the name itself and they've all done well.  With over fifty metres of fence to cover several of them are climbing varieties.

Here's Rosa Albertine, a vigorous rambler, with a shade tolerant clematis 'Etoile Violette' growing through it.   It's on a west facing fence so gets the most of the afternoon sun but I like it best when, as here, it filters the morning light.

I particularly love it's darker buds which remind me of ripening strawberries. 

A less vigorous but equally reliable climber is Rosa 'New Dawn' which was developed after the Second World War and named in the spirit of hope and regeneration.  With its soft colouring and gentle, fruity perfume it will happily grow in partial shade - and even flowers its heart out under my fig tree.

This eponymous beauty - a tall, arching climber, was named for the grande-dame of 1950s flower arranging Constance Spry.  The large, fully-cupped blooms remind me of vintage furnishing fabrics - over-stuffed sofas and comfy armchairs.  It has an oddly pungent spicy scent - more ointment than perfume - like something my grandmother would have rubbed on a bruised knee.  It too is happy in partial shade, the flowers lasting longer than in full sun.

As a Yorkshire lass I had to have a white rose and although this climbing version of the old favourite floribunda Rosa 'Iceberg' is not the traditional white rose of York (Rosa Alba Semiplena) I would choose it every time for its generosity of flowering which often goes on well into December when there's no sun at all in the garden.

Now for the shrub roses.  I chose this Gallica, Rosa 'Charles de Mills', for its decadent look of crumpled silk and its swooning old rose perfume - perfect for pot pourri or rose petal jam (all roses are edible but cut off the slightly bitter white bit at the base of each petal first).  Gallicas are some of the oldest roses and are noted for their tolerance of drier, poorer soils. Albas, such as Maiden's Blush and Madame Legras de St Germain won't mind partial shade.  Old-fashioned shrub roses aren't fussy as to pruning like some of the modern hybrids so they're easy-going for a beginner or a lazy gardener.  They're also more resistent to pests and diseases than the modern hybrids so you can put away the chemical sprays and go organic. 

Here's Charles de Mills with the shell pink alba Rosa 'Maiden's Blush' on either side of a narrow path.  Maiden's Blush has other less demure names too which might just have made a shy maiden blush once upon a time: Cuisse De Nymphe (nymph's thighs) and La Seduisante (the seductress).  It smells sublime - unlike the onion-scented alliums planted underneath to deter greenfly.  Swings and roundabouts!

Rosa 'Tuscany Superb, another Gallica,' isn't the most highly scented of the old roses but what it lacks on the nose it makes up for on the eye with its darkly sensuous colouring.

Well, now for the basketry.  If you're traipsing out of a mid-summer's morning to gather rose-buds you'll need a rose gatherer to put them in.  Here's one, based on a Catalan platter, made earlier for 'Practical Basketry Techniques' from two colourful varieties of willow.  Its wide, flat base and high, rounded handle is perfect for carrying roses without crushing them.

Platter by Stella Harding and Shane Waltener for 'Practical Basketry Techniques'

It would make a lovely old-fashioned table setting for a summer garden party too.  Not sure though what the redoubtable Constance Spry would have made of my attempts at flower arranging!

Monday, 21 May 2012


                                     March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.

May is one of my favourite times in the garden.  After all the buffeting, blustering, toil and tears of winter it finally feels as if summer's arrived and one can begin to relax.  Perhaps this is why I also have a particular fondness for May flowers: Late tulips, Iris, Alliums, Aquilegias and Auriculas.  Or it might be because I'm a May baby and a Taurean - Taurus being the birth-sign of Florists.

Tall bearded Iris germanica, Alliums, bronze Fennel and Euphorbia characias in my sunny front garden.

I love the colours too of many May flowering plants.  Irridescent blues, mauves and pinks set against glaucous greens. 

Allium Purple Sensation in the Lavender Border at Restoration House in Rochester (the 'other' garden)

Dwarf Bearded Iris, 'Langport Wren' with lime green Helleborus foetidus and white alliums in my back garden.

The trouble is though, that if you go overboard with all these moody mauves and purples your garden can begin to look a bit bruised and melancholy. Rather than a celebration of the merry month of May it can begin to resemble a wet weekend in Grimsby!  So, it's best to lift the mood with a few zingy spots of sunshine gold, pale cream or lime green.

Self sown Aquilegias (grannies bonnets) in purple, yellow and cream with acid yellow Euphorbia polychroma and the young foliage of Spirea Goldflame.

Nature does it naturally as in these border Auriculas with soft buttery centres set against their own apple green leaves. The crushed velvet foliage plant, Heuchera Palace Purple, provides a dramatic backdrop.

'You can never have enough Aquilegias' is my motto. Thankfully these cottage garden favourites are delightfully promiscuous plants and will cross-fertilise with abandonment - their progeny pop up everywhere and do well in sun or shade. 

This early flowering Clematis arches over an old wash tub full of yellow flag Iris Pseudocorus (not yet in flower).  The honey coloured falls of the tall bearded iris in the foreground give it it's name 'Honey Bee'.

'But what about the basketry?' you might be thinking.  Well, for me, May is the month to complete any plant staking while the soil is still soft enough to push in canes without too much effort.  Not a task I particularly relish - any excuse to put it off will do. But by June the heavy London clay in the back garden will have set like concrete and staking becomes impossible.

In 2010 I got it done in early April so that I could take pictures of these spiral plait cane toppers for 'Practical Basketrty Techniques' (see the plaiting chapter for how to make them). Here they're seen with chartreuse Helleborus Corsicus and the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'.  They're simple and quick to make with only 5 willow rods or any pliable woody winter prunings. They'll not only prevent you poking your eyes out on the bamboo canes but will make a great sculptural feature when arranged en-masse.  Staking thus becomes a creative opportunity rather than a grudging chore.

In the book you can see them used to make festive winter bird feeders but they'll look great in your garden with or without windfall fruits all year round.

                                      The flower of the common yellow flag, Iris Pseudocorus. 

And, when the summer flowers have faded and all the iris leaves are brown and dried you could set yourself a winter project to make a plaited workbag to carry all your gardening bits and bobs or basketry tools.

Work-bag by Tricia Lilley made from several different kinds of Iris leaves.  Illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'. Photo: Ashley Wallace.

Workbags similar to this date back to the 12th century and were known as 'flags' probably because that's what they were made from.  They're known to have been used by workers building the great cathedrals of Europe.

But winter projects are still a long way off.  I'm off to find a sunny spot for a tea break before the heavens open.  'Cast not a clout 'til May is out' - I shouldn't have mentioned that wet weekend in Grimsby - sorry Grimsby!

Almost forgot!  May is the time for Chelsea Flower Show.  Wish I could make it this year to see Chris Beardshaw's Gold Medal winning woodland garden for Furzey Gardens Charitable Trust.  Debbie Gibbs and her students from Minstead Training Project, Furzey's sister organisation for young people with learning disabilities, grew many of the plants.  Deb also made the glass art that Chris incorporated into his design.

Red and green dogwood and different coloured willows cut from Furzey Gardens by students at the Minstead Training project - as illustrated in 'Practical Basketry Techniques'.

I'm especially grateful to Deb and her team for providing a fabulous array of materials for use on projects in 'Practical Basketry Techniques' and for inviting me to run a workshop down there in the New Forest on the spiral plait cane toppers.  Hope they came in useful for those Chelsea Gold winning plants!  Congratulations to you all!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Generous Gardener

We don't all have a garden of our own but sometimes we're given the opportunity to share someone elses. One garden in which my partner, ceramicist Robert Cooper, and I have spent many happy and creative times is that of our dear friends and fellow artists Carol Farrow and Martin Ward.

Carol and Martin's courtyard garden is tucked between their house and barn in a small medieval village in rural France.  It's a tiny potager - an artless melange, stuffed full of flowers, herbs and summer vegetables - that doubles as an outdoor dining-room, crafting space and occasional art gallery.  At least, that's how we've been lucky enough to experience it. 

We've looked after the garden now for several summers running whilst Carol and Martin have been in the States doing Art Fairs.  Although the fertile, iron-rich soil and the not infrequent summer rain storms mean that the plants pretty much look after themselves, we're under strict instructions from Carol to water regularly - with liberal dowsings of bath water!  Waste not - want not! And no one in their right mind would dare disobey Carol's instructions.  Even though she's not there and it might, occasionally, cross your mind to just pull the plug from the bath and let the water run down the drain - because how would she ever know? you nevertheless dutifully ladle out every last drop and deposit your libations on her beloved plants.

In high summer, in the flower bed outside the little house, a profusion of golden Rudbeckias (black-eyed Susans) and white Japanese anemones hide the dying leaves of June-flowering day lilies (Hemerocallis)

And, in gardening as in life, what you put in you get out!  As my favourite gardening guru, the late Christopher Lloyd, once wrote: "It's the generous gardener whose garden is full of flowers."  What he was refering to was the way that keen and thrifty gardeners will swap and share clumps and cuttings, thus ensuring a plot overflowing with both plants and fond memories. 

Our summer visits to the garden have always co-incided with the fading of the day lilies.  Hemerocallis leaves are great for twined basketry or for making cordage.  It's always been a pleasure for me to tidy up the flower bed by pulling out the browning leaves, spreading them to dry thoroughly in the morning sun and then, later, making them into a crafty holiday basketry project.

Dried day lily leaves:  if you spread them out on the grass on a balmy summer's evening the next morning they'll be perfectly conditioned by the morning dew.  Otherwise you can just wrap them in a damp cloth for an hour or two to re-hydrate them for weaving.

The summer of  2010 was an exceptionally good crop and, over a few days, I produced many metres of cordage.  Whilst in previous years I'd made twined baskets from the leaves this year I wanted to try a frame basket.  I had in mind to use brambles from the surrounding hedgerows and by-ways. The path to the village graveyard, I'd noticed, was becoming menaced by some particulary rampant examples of these opportunistic thugs.  I also gathered them aplenty from the my son's nearby property where they were encroaching on the children's play area.  I learned from a gypsy trader, who I met selling bon-bons, bunny balloons and baskets in a local marketplace, that his family had often made baskets from les ronces (brambles) in the past.  He now uses a mix of split and stripped willow for his capacious market shoppers.

        Carrying on the family basketmaking tradition - with a bit of contemporary diversification.

I made the frame and the ribs of my baskets from some Plane tree prunings I found discarded on the local tip.  Rootling about in Carol's shed I found a bamboo plant support that I hoped she wouldn't mind me putting to good use as a ready-formed handle.  You need quite a few lengths of bramble to weave even a small basket and I found it best to use them quite quickly as they lose flexibility after a couple of days. The inclusion of the time-consuming day lily cordage was a bit of an extravagence for a simple frame basket but the total ensemble was a fitting use of all the different materials the garden and its locale had provided.

     You can begin a bramble frame basket by joining the handle to a hoop frame with a 'God's eye'

There was enough material to make two baskets.  One to leave as a gift for Carol and Martin and one to bring home as a souvenir of our summer in their garden.

My eldest grand-daughter Scarlett, helped with the weaving (once the brambles are stripped of thorns by pulling the cut stems through a leather-gloved hand they are quite safe enough for even a child to use) and grandson Jackson put the finished baskets to good use gathering fresh garden produce. 

                          Another of Carol's strict instructions:  'Make sure to eat the tomatoes!'

After a simple lunch of the kids' favourite (and mine) - pasta pesto with herby tomato salad - it was time for an alfresco art class.

Later, The Washing Line Gallery opened for business.


Paper-works by Carol Farrow

This post was written in loving memory of our dear friend Carol S. Farrow who died today.
A gifted artist, teacher and mentor with a most kind and generous spirit, her 'garden' - the legacy of a creative life with not one moment wasted - will always be full of flowers.