Easter in Virginia Woolf’s garden

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I have lived just down the road from Monk’s House, Virginia Woolf’s country cottage and garden, for nearly seven years, but only visited it for the first time this Easter weekend and was utterly enchanted.

What put me off visiting before was the prospect of taking young children around a small National Trust property, but the two oldest Little Weeds are now of an age where they can nearly be trusted – I say nearly as my oldest leaned casually on a treasured Bloomsbury table to fill in her Easter egg hunt booklet and was quickly reprimanded by the guide.

The garden, however, turned out to be perfect for older children (when the littlest Weed turned up after a walk with his dad he proceeded to kick the box balls and had to be swiftly escorted off the premises) – with plenty of room to run about and play bowls  on The Terrace, a large lawn with a dewpond, part of a field bought by the Woolfs from a local farmer to protect their view.

Three years ago my husband aka Mr RGFBRTG (Rather Go For a Bike Ride Than Garden) displayed uncharacteristic thoughtfulness by buying me a copy of Caroline Zoob’s wonderful book Virginia Woolf’s Garden with sumptuous photography by Caroline Arber. I have pored over the pictures in this volume many times, so I felt like I knew the garden before I visited, but the reality was quite different.

First of all we visited the house, where the rooms are much smaller than they appear in the photographs, filled with fascinating mementoes of the Woolfs’ literary life and friends. My favourite room was Virginia’s bedroom, which has a separate entrance to the rest of the house and looks out on both sides to the garden. It is light and airy, so that you almost feel that you are in the garden. The painted green walls enhance this feeling of bringing the outdoors inside.

April is a good month to visit Monk’s House as the tulips are out, the trees in the orchard are in blossom and the magnolia in the Fishpond Garden is in glorious pink flower. Zoob explains that this Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Lennei’ is underplanted every year with the same mix of tulips; Esther, Negrita and Queen of Night.

When Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought Monk’s House in 1919, it came with the remnants of outhouses and even an earth closet which was for a time the only lavatory. These lent themselves well to being turned into ‘garden rooms’. To the side of the white clapperboard house is the Italian Garden, a shady area planted with tranquil greens and a small fishpond. Immediately behind the house is a small lawn and the ‘Millstone Terrace’ – in the nineteenth century, the house had belonged to a family of millers who also owned Rodmell Mill. When this was pulled down in 1912, several millstones were taken to the house, where Leonard and Virginia found them a few years later and incorporated them into garden paths, an idea pioneered by Gertrude Jekyll. Next comes the walled garden, one of the last parts of the garden to be completed by Leonard Woolf who in 1937 oversaw the building of a brick terrace where the laundry and earth closet had once stood. On our visit it was a riot of tulips, but Caroline Zoob describes how later in the year it is “layered with rich colours”, and I look forward to visiting again in the summer.

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Underneath the window of Virginia’s bedroom which the Woolfs built as an extension onto the house sits a delightful border which Zoob describes in summer as filled with romantic blooms such as Rosa ‘Madam Alfred Carrière’, Rosa ‘Charles de Mills’, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munster’, Russian sage and clary sage, clematis, lupins, white phlox and Japanese anemones. A restful lawn is divided from the path by cordoned fruit trees trained on wires, underplanted with Muscari armeniacum and yet more tulips!

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Beyond the bedroom garden lie the brick paved ‘Fig Tree Garden’ and the Fishpond Garden with its matching busts of Leonard and Virginia. Although Virginia hated sitting for the sculptor, who had to leave the work unfinished, today it feels as though her bust looking out from under the magnolia tree contains the spirit of the writer living on in the garden.

For me, perhaps the most magical part of the garden is the wooden Writing Lodge, situated underneath the brick and flint boundary wall with the little 12th century church of St Peter’s, with views to the east looking out onto the Iron Age fort of Mount Caburn. According to Leonard, when she was not suffering from her periodic bouts of depression and illness, Virginia would make the daily journey across the garden to her writing lodge ‘with the daily regularity of a stockbroker’. I have written in an earlier post about how I would love to turn our rickety shed into a writing lodge of our own one day. In the meantime here is a picture of Middle Weed and me sitting on the small brick terrace where the Woolfs used to take tea with the likes of John Maynard Keynes and his ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova.

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To the back of the garden is a large allotment area, where volunteers and villagers from Rodmell grow fruit and veg and there is also a large orchard which the Little Weeds enjoyed running around in search of garden gnomes hiding clues to name a flower and earn a chocolate egg. I guessed the answer straight away as this flower was the theme of the day – TULIP!

The hills are alive… or having our Black Forest Gateau and eating it

As well as documenting our own garden and other plants and gardens that inspire me, this blog is about trying to get our children outdoors more, and we couldn’t have found a better place to do this than the Black Forest in southern Germany. We have just come back from a week in the Schwarzwäld where this was the view from our farmstay apartment (http://www.mooshof-mark.de).

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We were very impressed by how well this part of Germany is set up for children and families. On the recommendation of the Lonely Planet guide we visited the Spielscheune in the sleepy little village of Unterkirnach and found an incredibly well thought out all-weather playpark which allowed children to take managed risks. On a calm soft-play floor for younger children there was a mini bob-sled ride where kids could haul up their own wooden boxes to trundle down the track. Outside was a more exciting version for older children. In the large outdoor area there was a small lake which could be crossed by a zip wire or rafts. Our oldest Little Weed aged 8 and a half was a bit put out when she stepped in water and got one Converse trainer muddy, but she soon saw the funny side.

As a gardener, I am always keen to see what grows in the places I visit. Up in the peaks of the Black Forest there were still morning frosts in early April and the main plants seemed to be wildflowers and low-lying alpines. The urban planting I saw was jolly and slightly twee, with brightly coloured plastic Easter eggs hanging from small shrubs in public spaces in the chocolate box town of Gengenbach (chosen by director Tim Burton as the home of Augustus Gloop in his film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

At the Black Forest Open Air Museum we gained an insight into how gardening has evolved in this region. Several of the historic houses were accompanied by small, enclosed gardens, which would have been used to grow a mixture of flowers, vegetables and herbs, much like English cottage gardens. Information panels in the herb garden explained that farmhouse gardens would have drawn on many different influences including floral displays in the posh gardens of the urban bourgeoisie as well as baroque gardens. But the greatest influence were the monasteries in this intensely Catholic region, whose monks had knowledge of medicinal herbs and brought previously unknown varieties of plants and vegetables from the south. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote down the popular names for plants, showing that their healing power was well-known in the Middle Ages, even amongst illiterate parts of the population. I was fascinated to learn that the popular German name for comfrey, which I wrote about in a recent blog, is ‘Beinwell’ which translates as something like ‘healthy bone’, referring to its use in treating broken bones (one of its common names in English is ‘Knitbone’). Country people in times gone by would have relied on ‘God’s pharmacy’ for their very survival.

We were also very lucky to visit the Black Forest at cherry blossom time, although sadly I didn’t get any pictures of the orchards we passed by the side of the road as we were trying to keep up with the Germans who drive very fast! Instead here is a picture of cherries in the form of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – which in its place of origin is far from the 1970s dinner party associations of Black Forest Gateau – and is highly recommended!

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Making a garden our own

It is 10 months since we moved into our new garden (there is a house attached), but I still feel as though I am trespassing on someone else’s territory. Most of the trees, shrubs and plants have been chosen by others. Some I adore such as the gigantic fig tree my children love to climb and have nicknamed “the Whomping Willow” after the tree in the grounds of Hogwarts;

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Others I am not so sure about such as two Fatsia japonicas – one of which I took great satisfaction in cutting down at the weekend.

I have taken my time, carefully rescuing a Clematis armandii which had been allowed to flop down into a border, which has rewarded us with an dazzling cluster of flowers this Spring;

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I have gently weeded the shady herbaceous border behind our house, planting narcissi, tulips, alliums and a Verbena bonariensis, and cutting back dying foliage to reveal beautiful purple hellebores underneath frothy cherry blossom, but not making any major changes as yet;

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In the autumn, I went a bit bulb mad, planting over 200 including Iris reticulata ‘Clairette’, Narcissi ‘Cheerfulness’ and ‘King Alfred’, Muscari armeniacum and tulips ranging from bubblegum pink ‘Candy Prince’ to dark purple ‘Queen of the Night’ and vibrant ‘Burgundy Lace’. For the most part I am pleased with the effect, such as here in our south-facing front garden:

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But I haven’t always got it right. I am delighted that the snakeshead fritillaries I planted have now come up, but disappointed that they clash with the blue Chionodoxa:

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There is so much still to do. Our lawn is sparse thanks to the trampoline, slide and guinea pig run, and covered with creeping buttercups. The remnants of borders around the edges of the lawn need to be restored and replanted. The trees at the back need to be tamed and the grape vine has gone completely feral:

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I want to grow our own fruit and veg and encourage the children to sow wildflower patches on the way to the den we are building at the back of the garden. As I have written in previous posts there is a large shed to clear out, and another overgrown potting shed to be overhauled (behind the thicket of ivy):

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I am thankful to the previous residents who left behind elegant shrubs, apple and pear trees and summer-fruiting raspberry canes behind the washing line:

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I am also slightly daunted by the task in hand, but most of all I feel incredibly luck to have this space to make our own. Hopefully one day soon I will really start to think of it as our garden.

Take Comfrey

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‘Knitbone’, ‘bruisewort’, ‘boneset’ and ‘knit back’; these are just some of the folk names given to Comfrey, hinting at its long history as a medicinal herb. It was widely used to promote the healing of wounds and fractures, hence its common name, which is a corruption of the Latin ‘con firma’, alluding to the plant’s ability to knit bones back together. The botanical name Symphytum derives from the Greek word for ‘unite’. The leaves contain allantoin, a substance which can help tissue, bones and cartilage to grow. These were ground up and made into a poultice for wounds, while the roots were also grated to make a sludgy material used to pack around broken limbs.

The leaves have also traditionally been infused to make tea, or boiled and served as a wilted green vegetable. Today, although there is much debate about the safety of ingesting the plant, Comfrey ‘tea’ is still widely used by gardeners as a fertiliser, due to the success of its extensive root system in ‘mining’ the soil for nutrients and minerals. In particular its foliage is rich in potassium. (See http://permaculturenews.org/2010/10/01/the-wonderful-multi-purpose-comfrey-plant/).

Most books say the first blooms on Comfrey – a member of the Borage family – appear in April, but here on the South Coast it is already coming into flower. I am excited to have several plants in our new garden and think the bell-shaped creamy white flowers very attractive, even more so because of Comfrey’s beneficial properties. Not everyone is a fan, though. In her book Wild Flowers, Sarah Raven reveals that she regrets introducing Comfrey to her herb garden as it can quickly become invasive on heavy soil. There is a cultivar of Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) called Bocking 14 which is sterile and therefore does not set seed which has become popular to prevent such invasion. On our chalk soil, the common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) does not seem to have spread much since last year.

Mature Comfrey plants can be cut several times during the growing season and added in small amounts to the compost heap or used to make a liquid manure high in potash.

To make Comfrey ‘tea’ (for feeding plants not people):

  1. Cut the leaves with shears and chop coarsely into a bucket or container.
  2. Steep in water, placing bricks or another heavy item on top and leave for several weeks until they form a dark liquid.
  3. Dilute by about 15:1 before using as a liquid fertiliser.

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A veg plot in an hour (or two)

Oh how I envy all those allotment bloggers out there who have dug over large symmetrical beds ready to sow this year’s goodies. Although I dream of one day joining their hallowed ranks, this year I have neither the space nor time. My bog roll broad beans have been sitting on the kitchen windowsill growing leggier by the day until I decided they could not wait a moment longer and casting work and household chores aside I headed out into the glorious sunshine to make a home for them.

The bed I have chosen is far from ideal. It faces east and at this time of year only gets sun early in the day, although its sunny period extends later in the season. It also resembled what Little Weed #1 described as ‘a public cat toilet’.

IMG_2054Undaunted by these concerns, with only an hour to spare I set to work with the spade like a woman possessed, added some lovely horse manure, raked it over with a child’s rake which turned out to be perfect for the job and created a pretty fine tilth if I do say so myself.

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Then, eye on the clock, I speed-planted the broad beans (‘Bunyard’s Exhibition’), which required a little staking so leggy had they grown. The tripod of hazel sticks I have reused for the last five years has another year in it yet I reckon, so I inserted that too, awaiting ‘Enorma’ runner beans a couple of months hence. There is also room for some leafy greens and of course the carrots and calendula which the Little Weeds will be planting soon. Job done.

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Shed heaven

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Now that Spring is here it will soon be time for a job we have been putting off all winter: clearing out the shed. We have a large, but extremely tumbledown shed at the end of our garden. When we moved in, it was already a quarter full with detritus left by previous occupants, old bed heads, chicken wire, a coal scuttle and a shelf of distilling jars inexplicably filled with snail poo but no snails. There was also a strong and unpleasant odour which we quickly identified as rat poo. With no time to spare before the removal men descended, we swept it all into a corner before the shed was filled almost to the brim with old car seats, a roof box, boxes of unwanted files, bikes and numerous bits and pieces of garden furniture. To be honest, I’m not really sure what we will find in there when we eventually drag it out into the light of day, before embarking on the unpleasant job of clearing the rat poo away and getting the council round to check if we need to lay down poison.

Once that is done, I have dreams of an idyllic writer’s shed following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman and many more. Perhaps a green roof to replace the corrugated plastic covered in moss and leaf mould currently providing minimal protection from the elements. A little desk in the south facing window where I can sit looking out over the garden on warm days. It seems a distant dream at the moment, but with some elbow grease should be achievable by the summer.

Then, as Virgina Woolf wrote of the journey from Monk’s House (just down the road from us) to her writing lodge: I “shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn… take my writing board on my knee (for which read laptop); and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.”

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My oh my what a beautiful day.

  

Spring has sprung and this year it is extra sweet because it is our first in our new garden. Every time a plant comes into flower it feels like a gift: purple crocuses, cheery narcissi, heavenly hellebores, pretty snowdrops, zingy Mahonia zipping through the fig tree, bright Bergenias, delicate plum blossom and the divine smelling Daphne odora.
   
    
   

 

The first cut is the sweetest

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It’s Harry Potter mania in our house at the moment. Little Weed#1 and Middle Weed can’t get enough of all things Hogwarts and for a while I thought that was why I had selected a variety of sweet pea called ‘Nimbus’ this year (after Harry’s broomstick, the Nimbus 2000). Then I remembered visiting the Gold medal winning Eagle Sweet Peas stand at Chelsea last year, where I was particularly struck by a variety called ‘Lisa Marie’ after the owners’ daughter, described as ‘plum on silver’ (in the middle of the photo above). Nimbus, by Kings Seeds, is a similar colour combination. Having chosen this variety of Lathyrus odoratus for its appearance, I opted for the heavily scented purple blue ‘Alan Williams’ to grow alongside it.

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I have only just got round to sowing my sweet peas this year. As Eagle Sweet Peas advise, there is no need to soak or chit the seeds. I just planted mine in well-watered seed compost, probably cramming a few too many into a pot. They are now on the kitchen windowsill waiting to germinate and to be planted out in a month or so once I’ve pinched out the growing tip to encourage side shoots. I had great luck with sweet peas in our old garden where the soil was only about 10cm above chalk (although I did grow them in a raised bed), and am hoping to repeat that luck in our new garden.potted-sweet-peas

In her Garden Book, Vita Sackville-West recalls how the original Lathyrus odoratus was sent from Italy in 1699 by a Father Franciscus Cupani to Dr Robert Uvedale, headmaster of the Grammar School at Enfield, Middlesex. Dr Uvedale had a fine collection of foreign plants which after his death were sold to Sir Robert Walpole for his garden at Houghton in Norfolk. Vita advocates growing this original wild sweet pea, arguing, “the wild pea is not showy, in fact its pink and purple are very washy and the individual flowers are small, but they have a certain delicacy of appearance and the scent of even half a dozen in a bunch is amazing”. She recommends leaving the wild sweet peas to “scramble up twiggy pea sticks in a tangle and [be] kept entirely for picking in an unwanted but sunny corner of the kitchen garden”. At the end of the season these wild peas can be left to set their own seed for the following year. English Sweet Peas sell a variety called Sweet Pea Cupani Original, which was collected from the wild in Sicily in about 1975, which has all the original characteristics of Father Cupani’s original, as well as other heritage varieties.

For me, sweet peas are redolent of midsummer and romance. My mother grew hundreds of sweet peas for our June wedding 10 years ago, sowing them in October, and overwintering them in a cold frame. Thanks to her efforts, they flowered at just the right time (of course it is very important to pick the flowers regularly to ensure a constant supply and to prevent the plants from setting seed) and we had beautifully scented bunches of sweet peas on every table. This year we are planning a garden party to celebrate a decade of marriage and I hope to have my own sweet peas ready by then!

Front garden flâneur

I have a confession to make: I am a front garden flâneur. That’s the fancy French term for it, you may prefer the plain English nosy parker.

It comes from the best part of a decade spent pushing a buggy along urban streets, trying to soothe a baby or toddler to sleep, or merely escaping the house before I go mad, and passing the time by ogling other people’s plants. Now my buggy pushing days are numbered (Littlest Weed turns 3 in just over a month), I will have to find a different excuse for sauntering aimlessly past and sticking my nose over the wall.

It must be hereditary. My mother used to excruciatingly embarrass me by wandering right in to strangers’ front gardens for a good sniff and on occasion to help herself to a cutting or two. When the owner emerged to see what this strange woman was up to she would merely smile and compliment them on a fine plant specimen. I have not yet reached this stage of the disease.

On routes that I take every day I begin to feel a sense of ownership of favourite plants – I look forward every year to the series of quite different Philadelphus on the school run, and I miss the garden near our old house belonging to a wonderful woman in her eighties that put on a glorious show of crimson tulips each spring (she told me she planted them when her husband died – in 1980!)

I am not sure of the privacy aspect of posting pictures of other people’s front gardens – they are already on view after all but I still feel I should ask permission. If I summon up the courage I might turn it into an occasional series.

In the meantime here are a few pics from my own front garden – much weeding is required – but I am pleased to see the 100 plus bulbs I planted in the autumn poking through. The beautiful blue Iris reticulata ‘Clairette’ I put in are already brightening up February, while the Daphne odora which came with the house turns walking up the garden path into a divine experience every time.



The Bergenias are coming into flower;


And one of the three hellebores I planted last year has produced two dusky pink flowers (please ignore the weeds);


Later in the year we have lovely roses (that reminds me I must prune them). They are not to everyone’s taste though. Last summer a passerby irritated by roses tumbling down from our quite high garden wall at head height took it upon themselves to prune it for us!

I love Christmas because despite the lack of flowers in bloom, people actively invite you to look at their outdoor space with wreaths and fairy lights galore. I particularly liked this idea by one of our neighbours to hang dried orange slices from a Rosemary (I hope they don’t mind me posting it but it was right on the street).


I would love to hear from you about your front gardens – then I wouldn’t even need to leave the house to indulge my flâneurism!

Garden bites #2 – Bog roll beans

What to do with all those toilet roll tubes? As a family of five we produce a lot of them, so I have been meaning to re-use them as biodegradable seed pots for some time, and this weekend I finally got round to it.

The first step was to clean out my mini-outdoor greenhouse after the winter. On an unseasonably warm February day this was a pleasant task.


Then I filled my small collection of bog roll inners (a mixture of Tesco, Waitrose and Aldi if you’re interested – wonder if it makes a difference) with seed compost. I have bought a new bag for the spring but decided to use up some old stuff first. 

Now to get sowing my broad beans. I opted for Bunyard’s Exhibition, said to be a reliable cropper. I poked the dried beans down to the requisite 5cm depth – hard to believe they will turn into new plants but here’s hoping. According to the packet you can plant them in a greenhouse or under a cloche in February, but I have decided to cosset mine, so after a generous water it was off to the kitchen windowsill.