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!

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.

Seedy weekends

So far February has been a month of work deadlines and half term (aaaagh) limiting my ability to get going in the garden. But my appetite has been whetted by the appearance of a solitary flower on one of the three hellebores I planted last autumn;

 By palest purple crocuses appearing in the lawn behind the trampoline;

 By the lemony sweetness of our inherited Daphne odora (I’ve always wanted one and there it is); and by the first snowdrops;

 At weekends I have managed to sneak in a little preparation for the gardening year ahead.

First stop our local “Seedy Saturday”. This was mainly dominated by Middle Weed who made the most of having me to herself to indulge in cress head planting and clay modelling.

 When I finally managed to snatch a few moments to myself I threw myself at the nearest seed stall and bought everything on my wish list in 5 minutes flat. This included first early seed potatoes, main crop seed potatoes, broad beans ‘Bunyards Exhibition’, ‘Meteor’ peas, ‘Cosse Violette’ purple climbing French beans, ‘Enorma’ runner beans, chives, purple sprouting broccoli, lemon balm, borage, ‘Nero di Toscana’ kale, ‘Nero di Milano’ courgettes (what’s with all the Neros?), rainbow chard and two varieties of sweet pea in silver and blue (‘Nimbus’ and ‘Alan Williams’). My mother who had come along for the ride, shook her head sagely and said ‘You’ll never plant all of those’.

I mean to prove her wrong and have since added two types of heritage tomato (Gardener’s Delight and Purple Calabash), Sarah Raven’s Nigella ‘Moody Blues’ and wildflower poppies and some children’s seed packets of carrots and calendula for the little weeds.

Now all I need is for half term to be over (just the one Roman shield to make) and I can get planting.

Garden bites #1

Like most of us I have many competing demands on my time and often I can only get out into the garden for half an hour or so. But those half hours soon add up. If you single out one task and complete it, you can get a great deal of satisfaction. This weekend in between ferrying children to piano lessons and giving in to their demands to see ‘Sing‘ at the cinema, I finally managed to deal with this ugly patch by the front door which has been bugging me all winter. 

Half an hour later (well an hour if I’m honest) it was transformed into this: 

Ok, maybe it’s not exactly reached the dizzying heights of garden transformations yet, but getting rid of all those dead and mouldy Crocosmia leaves and uncovering the green shoots of unknown bulbs underneath has inspired me to make plans for later in the year for this spot which we and our visitors see every time we enter or leave the house.

I’m thinking a lovely old-fashioned red rose against the wall, maybe Souvenir du Docteur Jamain. Then something sweet-scented for brushing past on summer evenings – sweet peas, jasmine or Nicotiana, or maybe all three.

Then a plant or two that we can pick and eat as we go past – nasturtiums for their ‘nippy biscuit’ leaves and welcoming orange hue, a pot of tomatoes and some borage for its lovely edible blue flowers. Watch this space.

Bohemian Rhapsody


This week my mum and I went to see the novelist Charlotte Mendelson talking about her new non-fiction book about her tiny North London garden, Rhapsody In Green, to the Lewes Literary Society.

Charlotte was warm, exuberant and funny, making fun of her own ‘pre-war vowels’, and made me feel a lot better about my own – very imperfect – style of gardening. She declares in the Prologue to her beautifully written book – there are no pictures and it doesn’t need any – that this is not a book for anyone who likes a neat and pretty garden, low maintenance plants or who can measure their garden in acres. Instead she urges anyone who nurses “secret dreams of self-sufficiency, of orchards, livestock and Little House on the Prairie-style preserving” to come closer.

As her own garden measures just 8m x 4m, she only grows plants that she and her friends and family can eat, but these she grows in abundance; “in an ordinary year: eight types of tomato; five varieties of kale; golden raspberries; twenty kinds of lettuce, chicory and Asian greens; Italian climbing beans; about fifty herbs and a few flowers, all edible”. She also talked about the lies she tells to her nearest and dearest about how long she spends in the garden – “This won’t take long”; “Just give me another hour… or two.”

What appeals to me most is that she gardens for herself, with passion but without adhering to any rule book. She does not possess a greenhouse or even a potting shed and lives “in the only house in North London without windowsills”, so grows all her seedlings “on the mat by the back door”. Her children are long-suffering, urging their mother to stop dawdling to admire plants on the way to school, and demanding cheese toasties rather than the homegrown fare she serves up to them.

She also demonstrates that gardening is a suitable pursuit for writers – something I knew already living in Sussex where Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West gardened – but which it is always nice to be reminded of. There is something very freeing about her garden writing, reassuring her reader that it is ok just to get out there and do whatever feels right in the garden. Unlike Charlotte, I love growing flowers as well as fruit, herbs and vegetables, but hearing her speak and reading her book has inspired me to grow them all together in a glorious jumble.

Having recently moved to a new house and garden, I particularly like her paragraph about getting to know her garden: “In my excitement I had already read enough to know what people do when they inherit a garden: they leave it for a year until, after flowering and dying back, the garden’s bones (they always say ‘bones’) emerge… Oddly, that is not how it turned out.” Instead she plunges right in. I think I will follow her advice.

A real family garden

january-gardenIt is the beginning of January and our garden is looking a bit sorry for itself. In the flower beds, weeds are poking through last year’s dying vegetation. The lawn is scrubby and half covered with a giant trampoline. Our soon to be veg patch is a favourite toilet spot for next-doors’ cats. In our half-filled sandpit, toys abandoned at the end of summer lie forlornly in pools of rainwater.

On Gardener’s Question Time this week, the panel urged listeners to get out into the winter garden. I would love nothing more, but the thought of doing so accompanied by three impatient children does not appeal. The eight-year-old lives in fear of treading on a rotten pear, while the two-year-old loves digging in all the wrong places.

But after a December spent far too much indoors, trying to prise the children away from screens, I want our family to spend as much of the year ahead in the garden as possible. Perhaps this means that I have to relax about our toddler digging up the bulbs I carefully planted last autumn and little feet treading soil throughout the house.

I also have to accept that with a young family, our back garden is not going to look like the gardens in magazines and coffee table books. Save that for when they have flown the nest and we have time on our hands.

A real family garden should have a different kind of charm. It should be a place for experimentation, learning, play and relaxation. Over the course of the next year I am going to get my children involved with growing things and helping to make our garden a place they are happy to hang out in. We will grow our own fruit and vegetables to pick and eat, sow pretty flower seeds for fun, create havens for wildlife where we can then observe them and best of all build a den at the bottom of the garden!