Saturday, 19 December 2009
Monday, 7 December 2009
The plant is a semi-parasite, with roots that invade the body of larger woody plants to access minerals and water. Unlike fully parasitic plants it does photosynthesise, so is not dependent on the host for all its needs. In Europe this species lives happily on some 200 species of tree, although we tend to associate it with orchards. In Oxford there is a wonderful colony infesting the trees next to Magdalen Bridge, visible only after the leaves have fallen in autumn. The image is of a young plant growing conveniently low down on a small Sorbus near my house. The leaves, leathery and yellow-green, are paired on whippy stalks, with small clusters of the sticky, gelatinous berries in the axils. In overall habit the plant makes a decorative ball of foliage - a few years ago I bought an entire plant instead of the usual sprig, and was amazed by the intricacy of the 70cm ball of leaves and berries that arrived. It also looked much bigger in the house than it had in the market.
And so to mythology...
A magical plant as far back as the Ancient Greeks, mistletoe was thought to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans. In early Christian tradition it had once been a tree, but the timber for Christ's cross was hewn from a mistletoe, since when the plant has been reduced to a withered parasite clinging to others, presumably as a punishment for allowing itself to be put to this use by the Roman soldiers. With a reputation for immortality mistletoe held, in Ancient Britain, a central role in the Druidical rites celebrating the winter solstice.
Finally its use as a Christmas decoration, which must have some connection to the midwinter ceremonies of the Druids. Though only recorded as far back as the 18th century, the use of mistletoe in the home still has shreds of earlier mythologies adhering to it - the mistletoe should not be allowed to touch the ground after harvesting, for instance. Originally the greenery would be kept in the house until Candlemas in early February, although other traditions have it hanging throughout the year as a preventative measure against fire and lightning strike (something akin to the old country practice of growing house-leeks on the roof) before being replaced the following Christmas Eve.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
At the most basic level, it is structural. Thanks to its flexibility, great tensile strength, ease of handling and durability (when cared for) timber has an essential role to play in the safe creation of many garden structures (and most of the buildings we still live in). In this role it supports decking, stairways, roofs and floors, holds up gateposts and prevents doorways from collapsing.
Beyond this however is the great and inescapable fact of its natural good looks - even beauty - and this quality has been exploited for centuries to embellish the man-made environment, both indoors and out. Whether shaped or left in its native state, wood brings something of the primitive to the garden. As our first building material and the fuel for our earliest fires wood has claim to be as deeply rooted in the human subconscious as the tree is in the earth. Living and dead it has been of critical importance to our survival, sheltering and warming our species since its infancy. In the form of the living tree it continues to be a source of spiritual solace, although paradoxically the forest has also the capacity to inspire fear - the sinister beings of fairytale lurk there.
Friday, 20 November 2009
There is nothing quite like the pale purple-blue of this crocus, appearing as it does at the fag-end of the flowering season when pretty much all else is over and done.
It's a delicate thing, and can struggle in the gusts and heavy rain of late autumn, but with a few days of still weather and sunshine it's possible to get a great show. Pushing through the fallen leaves of a magnolia, this bloom shows the close-up loveliness of the flower, with the orange stamens glowing in the heart of it.
The stamens are the valuable culinary spice, saffron, and for this reason the bulb has been cultivated for centuries. Valuable for two reasons - the labour involved in harvesting any amount worth having is intensive, and the flavour is unique: there is no substitute for this curious warm, fragrant spice, nothing comparable for adding to cakes, bread, stews, puddings.
Highly prized in Northern Europe during the medieval period, when mixtures of savoury and sweet were all the rage, the spice was cultivated on a large scale around, for instance, Saffron Walden in Essex. Also essential in the cookery of the Levant, saffron is grown all around the Mediterranean, featuring heavily in the cuisines of Spain, Morocco and the Middle East - the finest spice is now grown in Spain, on the plains of La Mancha. Never buy ground saffron - like all valuable powders it is easily adulterated - but look for the whole dried stamens. Steer well clear, in particular, of the huge mounds of orange powder paint on display in the souks of Marrakech and markets of Spain, which clearly cannot be what the vendor claims. Invest well, enjoy the flowers and then relish your own saffron in a bouillabaisse, tagine, paella or humble saffron bun.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
The design on the ground is ridiculously simple, but it amazes me how much editing is necessary to achieve the end result - in a garden as small as this every element has to earn its right to be there. The key to the design is the large water tank in Cor-ten steel, completed yesterday and just starting to weather in the lashing rain today. This three metre long cistern anchors the whole garden, and the small gravel terrace is linked directly to it, establishing these two elements in a direct relationship. The water will be still - in such a limited space the sound of running water will be inescapable, and therefore irritating to me, in the same way those ghastly wind chimes clank incessantly.
The balcony to the first floor is being extended to the full width of the house, and beneath it will be a timber-clad 'room', increasing the usable space in the ground floor on fine days. From this projects a timbered catwalk, which will be the only access into the body of the garden, this linking to the little terrace. Enclosure and privacy will be subliminally implied by the elevated beam structure surrounding the terrace.
The temptation in a small space is to cram in all the features of bigger gardens, but on a reduced scale, but this just results in a fussy, over-elaborated space with insufficient room for anything to work well.
The only other element to this garden will be the planting, surrounding all these landscape features in a sea of vegetation, which will be the subject of future posts.
Wednesday, 28 October 2009
In exterior design water has always played a pivotal role - indeed the very first gardens were devised as ways of providing access to water and the shade of trees thus enabled to grow in otherwise hostile desert environments. In these settings too, water played a symbolic role. Water can soothe, excite, reflect the changing sky, provide focal points and demarcate pathways and routes of flow. In the grandest gardens it has often been used to define a dominant axis. It can be still, offering a chance for contemplation and allowing the eye to rest after the stimulation of a crowded and visually busy part of a garden, or it can move, making noises from the gentlest murmur to a galloping roar - although the gardens where this is possible are necessarily on the largest scale. In the history of landscape design it has been poured, sprayed, sprinkled, dripped, channelled, dammed and, just occasionally, left to its own devices.
In my own small garden I am having a large, free-standing tank constructed. This will be the dominant feature in the garden, and it will have water plants, fish (if the cats keep their paws to themselves) and in a few short weeks an ecology of its own. I can't wait for my first dragonfly - I'm banking on May next year. It will also, as in the photograph above, bring the sky down to ground level, reflecting light.
Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Sunday, 18 October 2009
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
So, thanks to all the wonderful staff and my fifteen female fellow-students - we had a great year and invented some lovely gardens together - real landscapes of the mind, which will never need weeding, and will always look their best...
Sunday, 11 October 2009
These small fishing villages in North Cornwall are idyllic for the visitor - probably quite tough for locals struggling to afford property that is being bought up by wealthy outsiders, but wonderful for a short holiday, especially outside the summer season and in fine weather. There is always something to observe, and something to photograph. Returning to the harbour after an hour or so wandering the coastal path into the neighbouring coves, I was taken by the richness of this mustard-coloured hull in the low evening light, accenting the rust and red hues in the paintwork. The matching buoy and softly rippled water were lucky bonuses. I really love these sorts of colours, and the harbour wall gave plenty of opportunities for some more graphic compositions, exploring the textures of seaweed, concrete and iron.
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
This is an ancient managed landscape, which preserves the monuments created at the end of the Bronze Age in Britain, about three thousand years ago, in approximately 800BC. The rippled walls of the dry valley known as The Manger are offset against the level floor, carved into terraces along the looping sides of the valley. Nearby rises the artificially flattened cone of a natural outcrop, to which has accreted one of the many legends of the surrounding landscape. Now called Dragon Hill, it is reputedly the spot where St George slew his dragon - a patch of chalk, where grass refuses to grow, still marks the place where the dragon's blood fell. Beyond this lies the Vale of the White Horse, its parish boundaries still adhering to the pattern of ditches which marked the territories of those ancient communities of 800BC.
Even more enigmatic than Dragon Hill, however, is the chalk-carved figure of the horse itself. Dated to the same period, this stylised figure has its own canon of tales and associations. Long thought to have been carved to mark the victory of King Alfred over the Danes at the nearby Battle of Ashdown in 871CE, the figure was already ancient by this time. Among many other stories and traditions the best known is that which says that a person standing in the eye of the Horse will have a wish granted. It doesn't stop here. Above the figure of the Horse, on the brow of the hill, the highest point for miles around has the remains of a ditched fort, the earthworks now moulded to gentle curves by the passage of time.
Over everything is the sheep-bitten turf, the occasional crow, and, on this afternoon, a hawk, flying low in the wind.
Sunday, 4 October 2009
There was a good turnout fom this year's Oxford College of Garden Design diploma course, there to see Sarah Naybour awarded the Student Designer of the Year prize - and to do the essential networking of course!
Friday, 2 October 2009
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Sunday, 27 September 2009
These three images, taken from the same spot, show the development of a simple and easily-maintained garden. The garden when first seen (bottom) was an almost impenetrable mass of overgrown conifers and scrubby shrubs, the shrub layer ailing in the dark and dry conditions created by the trees. What had once been lawn had become a patch of scruffy and uneven grass with a weaving line of loose bricks and rubble holding back the soil from a slightly higher level at the far end of the garden. The proximity of the trees to the house closed off the rear part of the garden and blocked light and views of the nearby cathedral.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Monday, 21 September 2009
My submission for the SGD Student of the Year failed to impress the judges sufficiently to gain me an award, but I am delighted that my work was considered good enough to be included in the first place. I'm even more pleased for my friend Sarah, who has scooped the first prize - very well deserved and a great testament to her talents and professionalism.
Here's to autumn...
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
There are in fact rather too many structures in this landscape for my taste - from one vantage point at least six are in view at once - and when first completed there were even more, but the existing landscape has been magnificently moulded and adapted, and the famous approaches have lost none of their power to impress, with the great house appearing and disappearing over successive ridges, framed at times by the arches and pavilions along the way.