-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Monday, June 26, 2006

our visit to Beth Chatto gardens

We visited the famous Beth Chatto gardens in Colchester Essex last Saturday afternoon. It was a gloriously hot day so the gardens were extremely crowded, but you couldn't have picked better weather for seeing a "dry" garden.

I'd been looking forward to this for ages as the gardens are famous for being in a very dry part of England, only 500mm rainfall per year apparently, and so similar conditions to Amherst. I was hoping to get lots of inspiration.

Unfortunately it didn't work out that way. The plants were all healthy but somehow there was just something missing for me. It felt like a small botanical garden and lacking a personal touch. Perhaps I'm just too used to gardens with "rooms" but it lacked the magic of other gardens we've visited. It's sad as I'd really wanted to love it, not least because it's in a very dry part of the country with similar rainfall to Amherst, so I would have had a good chance to make something similar! C'est la vie.

The one thing I have taken away from this is that come hell or high water, we have to have lawn around our plantings. Even Dave agrees. Gravel might be OK for a small section, eg: formal herb garden paths, but it is just too hot and washes out the plant colours to have it everywhere, ala the mediterranean garden. Hell, I'll even use fake astroturf if I have to in parts to create the effect of lushness.

Here's a picture of the dry garden, so you can see what it looks like. It's not that it's ugly, it's just that it doesn't move me the way other gardens do. If my garden looked like this, it would be a chore to work in; whereas if my garden was like at Sissinghurst or Hidcote I could gladly labour all day happily.

beth chatto dry garden

Sunday, June 25, 2006

work to do when we visit in October

Dave and I were talking today about what we should aim to do at Amherst when we visit in late October. We figured it was better to decide early enough that we could get whatever equipment & raw materials we needed sorted without last minute panic.

We're hoping to get up there on a Monday and spend a week working, then on the last weekend have a big BBQ where everyone's invited to come (& also help out if they feel so inclined!)

These are our initial ideas of what to do, which are probably hopelessly over-optimistic.

1. Lay out the broad bones of the front garden areas

By front garden areas I mean the vegie garden, orchard, and the area between the dam/driveway & front of the new house. To help in doing this, I was thinking we could get some bright coloured rope and pegs to hold it roughly in position? I thought about spraypaint on the ground but that won't last, and it's no good when you accidentally put it in the wrong place. Using rope won't be perfect, as we'll probably be wanting to put in some terracing, but will at least give an indication.

2. Dig trenches & pour the concrete foundations for the walls for the vegie garden, and build at least one or two prototype 'columns'.

Dave figures that we could just rent one of those digger things again to rip a trench, then pour concrete all around. As it doesn't need to be smoothed out, hopefully would just be a case of mixing roughly and pouring?

The columns we envisage as being hollow brick cubes, square, roughly 50-60cm x 50-60cm, up to about door height, or maybe even a bit higher. We want them to be hollow not only to save bricks, but so that we can fill from the bottom with rubbish/concrete up to about 1m from the top with a pipe inserted for drainage. The remaining bit we want to fill with soil and plant things in it, like climbers.

The reason for planting the climbers up high is to keep their base out of the way of the kangaroos, and then they can hang down and grow sideways rather than climb up. Then even if the kangaroos get to them in the summer months, it'll be OK provided we have climbers that are spring-flowering and can tolerate hard pruning in summer! We can grow other things, like lavendar or other plants kangaroos don't like lower down.

Ultimately we could even build some taller columns in the middle part of the vegie garden, as we're going to need eventally to have a wire roof over the top to stop the cockatoos, and by having the columns taller in the middle and rigging the net between we might get a sort of big top effect? I'm even dreaming and thinking that perhaps one of the inner columns could be a working outdoor fireplace chimney, so that we would have somewhere to burn things off but also keep us warm during winter days, but that might be a bit extravagant!

In between the columns we haven't decided what we'll put yet, and it's not something we're going to worry with for this trip as we figure we'll have more than enough heavy work just to get the concrete & columns. We're toying with the idea of having a kind of adobe wall that we press the local quartz stones into, to give an effect sort of like this:

Stone wall in Cambridge

But rather than being solid all round we want to intersperse it with "windows". Whether they be real windows, with glass, or open windows with wire, we haven't decided yet.

3. Collect stones

As a simple thing that anyone can help with on the weekend we have the "big BBQ", Dave suggested we start to collect stones. Besides a few wheelbarrows and gloves, don't think we'd need anything more for this? If we just collect the ones on the surface, then in a few years the weathering will reveal more and we can get some more. It'd give us a headstart on gathering the stones for the vegie garden wall.

4. Plant a few more trees

We've just now splurged and ordered 3 wollemi pines which are being delivered to Dave's parents house for safe keeping until then.


Besides helping with their conservation - these are the trees that they only recently discovered weren't extinct and they need lots of people to grow to protect them - they look a bit like monkey puzzles, which I really like but unfortunately don't suit our conditions. The wollemi's will need protection like the other trees, plus we might need to get a little creative with the watering setup during the first summer but we'll find a way. They grow about 0.5 - 1m every year up to a height of 20m according to the official site, so even allowing for our bad conditions hopefully they'll be a recognisable tree inside 5 years. They seem pretty hardy too, able to cope with extremes of hot and cold, so once they've gotten through their first year and used to the lack of water, hopefully they'll be OK.

We were also toying with the idea of planting a few figs in the orchard, if we can find some that are drought-hardy. There's a nice article about them here mentioning various varieties, but I've not yet found anywhere online to order from.

5. Plant some succulents or cacti

These seem like they'd be well suited to the conditions and as they take a long time to grow would be good to get a head start. We want ultimately to have various big specimens dotted around. Varieties we're thinking of are:

Agave Americana

Mountain Aloe (a. marlothii)

Cape aloe, also called bitter aloe (a. ferox)

But these are just ones we saw in Gardening Australia articles - I figure there will be others equally nice. It might require a bit of pre-planning to get hold of them but there seem to be quite a few specialist succulent/cacti nurseries in Australia, according to Nurseries Online.

6. Plant a hedge

This may be overly ambitious, and is the thing I'm most inclined to drop off the list, but because hedges take such a long time to establish we thought it might be worth getting a headstart, at least on a small scale. Of course, we don't know exactly where we'd plant it yet, but sure we could figure that out when we're there... eg: maybe the length of the new house and parallel to it a bit further down towards the driveway (ie: well out of the way of where we'd need to make a mess with building)? Or maybe perpendicular to that to start to give some wind protection to whatever we plant behind in a few years? Hmmm

I'm thinking of our first hedge being with Photinia:

It looks a nice colour and seems to grow fast - 2m in 4 years, so even allowing for our dreadful conditions, it might be passable as a hedge within 6 years hopefully. It likes well-drained soil, full sun, is frost tolerant, and says it copes with drier conditions, and a Gardening Australia article said it was a fire retardant.

Whatever we plant, I was thinking we could protect it by wrapping in a big narrow loop of wire, which could remain in place even once the hedge was grown. Provided it was a sturdy enough framework then we could rely on the kangaroos to help with the pruning!

7. Dump truck of manure

Once we've got the vegie garden area laid out, we thought it'd be a good idea to get a dump truck or two full of manure, to literally just spread on the surface as a way to start improving the soil. If we spread it on and then leave it for a few years, presumably the worms will work it into the soil without us having to dig Also, then Mum could always start to plant pumpkins and things if she felt so inclined.

a different approach to reupholstery

I was really skeptical until we tried it for one of our armchairs and now I will never go back. Unless there's another reason for reupholstering besides replacing worn fabric, I recommend getting fitted covers instead of 'permanent' reupholstery.

We've had two armchairs done now, and for both you can't tell that it is removable. We got them done in a rough velvet-ey cream fabric and it's so practical to be able to take the covers off and throw in the washing machine. Once dry, you then just re-fit using the hidden zippers and velcro and voila, it's back to normal except now it's clean! It's a hell of a lot easier than steam cleaning.

The place we've used so far is called Plumbs Covers. Their brochures can be a pretty tacky looking and any of the special offers only applies to horrible chintzy polyester fabrics. But, they have a big range and provided you're willing to pay for the custom-made service and pick a decent fabric, it's brilliant. It worked out for us about the same price as permanent reupholstering would have, so it wasn't about saving money, but it is more practical. The best thing about it now is that they've just introduced a worldwide mailorder service. So, you just need to take the measurements yourself and send photos of the sofas / chairs you want covered and they'll make it to order.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Aberdeenshire inspiration

We’ve just got back from 4 days in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, spent mostly visiting castles and gardens albeit in somewhat drizzly weather. As is usual whenever we travel now, we came back armed magpie-like with ideas for Amherst! You can see the full set of photos here but these are the main ideas:

For the garden:

My favourite of the gardens we visited was at Leith Hall, as it was the most ‘English’ of the lot with a huge zigzagging herbaceous border and lots of flowers and specimen trees. Ideas it sparked included:

Gates that shut themselves by means of a heavy stone weight tied to them
082 leith hall

Having a circular gateway like their moongate. Not sure how hard it would be to make, but in the right spot it could be really effective.
101 leith hall

Mowing the grass to make a pattern. I’ve seen this done before to create walkways, but never as effectively to create a decorative pattern.
104 leith hall

A close second to Leith Hall of my favourite gardens was at Crathes Castle. It was the first we visited on this trip. Ideas we got from it:

Lupins lupins lupins. They were everywhere in full bloom, especially in the garden at Crathes Castle which had an entire border full of them. They really looked spectacular. I’m going to give them another chance in our London garden, plus put them on the list for the ‘cossetted’ secret garden area at Amherst.
015 crathes castle

Square rope like netting stretched between stakes all along the herbaceous border was used at almost all the gardens we visited, but we saw it most at Crathes. I’d not seen it before, I guess because we’d not visited early enough in the season before the plants had grown. It was put about thigh height and the plants just grew up through it so that it provided them with support and held the flower stalks up straight. A very clever idea I shall definitely borrow, a lot easier than attempting to stake individual plants.
011 crathes castle

Gravelled paths but letting the edges go a bit wild so that succulents and little creepers can spread in the margins
034 crathes castle

Garden gates made of curved metal strips. I love cast iron gates but as I don’t know any friendly blacksmiths I figure we won’t be able to ever afford them. But, perhaps we will be able to find some readymade curved metal strips which by judicious weaving and screwing together, and black paint, we could get this effect.
006 crathes castle

Dave found a lovely creeper which has pink and white mottled leaves as well as green. It is called actinidia kolomikta.
025 crathes castle

The only non-castle-attached garden we visited was Pitmedden Garden. I learned once and for all that I do not much like parterre style beds and elaborate planting out schemes. Which is good as I’ve now spared myself a trip to Versailles! But we did see some things we liked there, including:

Apples and other fruit espaliered not against a wall, but along and over a curved arch walkway, like you would more commonly see with roses.
067 pitmedden garden

Double rows of limes (or linden trees as Dave prefers to call them) planted close enough and pruned to create a walkway.
068 pitmedden garden

Carefully chosen sculpture can really enhance a garden – we both loved the lifesize boxing hares on the main lawn.
069 pitmedden garden

Drum Castle was the last of the castles we visited, and we spent a lot of time in the garden as we got there too early! Most of the things we'd seen elsewhere though, so although it was lovely we didn't get any new ideas. The sole exception was that there was a spectacular tree, called davidia involucrata... aka the pocket handkerchief tree!
137 drum castle

For the house:

There weren’t as many ideas as you might expect considering we visited 5 houses, but with only one exception they were all very different to the usual style of place we visit. They were mostly castles, and Scottish style castles at that, which tended to have a lot of narrow towers with lots of winding stone steps. We visited in order, Crathes castle, Haddo House, Leith Hall (like a mini-castle), Craigievar castle and Drum castle.

Some of the ideas:

The importance of rugs. You can never have enough rugs it seems, and if you can’t get giant ones that cover a room, then just get 3 or 4 and scatter them around. They don’t even need to match to look good provided they’re all of similar style, and they look even nicer when they’re worn. So I’m on the lookout for old rugs, I wonder where you get them from?

Tapestry seats on chairs. I might even experiment with re-upholstering the new dining chairs with tapestry seats, if I can find some ready-done tapestry. I’ve seen it come up on Ebay occasionally. I just don’t have the patience to do the lot myself!

Little flaps, about the width of a bookmark but lying perpendicular to the book, hanging from the top of each shelf in a library. It stops the dust getting onto the books in the shelf below. Dave reckoned we could do it using Velcro to hold the strips on and then just have a piece of wood that sits over the top to give the illusion of a straight edge. When it got dusty you could just peel the Velcro off and wash them.

Dave is keen on the idea of having a ‘Great Hall’, aka a long room with barrel vaulted ceiling. We talked about maybe having the library at Amherst in this style. I was also wondering about putting the giant stained glass lamp in there, with a skylight above it, but would have to try it out in SketchUp to test it didn’t disrupt the symmetry.

Rather than having a chair that converts to a 2-step stepladder, have instead a longer bench or stool that converts to a 4-step stepladder.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Ebay wins: chairs galore

We've continued to acquire odds and ends on Ebay. Here's the recent additions:

Dining chairs

Most recently we won some lovely dining chairs. This brings our total of nice chairs up to 15 now, which should be enough to allow for scattering them around the house & cottage. These require a little work on reupholstering but doesn't look too hard, and now I have a project for summer! :-)



From the description:
"Five dining chairs plus one carver. Bought together with a table 15 years ago from an antique shop. I have abandoned trying to reupholster them and we have bought some modern chairs when we moved house. Although two of the chairs have no seat pad and the others are in need of reupholstering I have all the bits. I know nothing about antiques but have been told these are nice chairs and worth something; someone even told me they are 'arts and crafts'. We are just fed up with them sitting in our house and the highest bidder is welcome to them! They are absolutely solid on their legs with no wobbly backs etc. But they do need re-upholstering"

Oak stools

We also recently got some great little oak stools. They're footstools really, but a great size to serve as little low tables too, which is how we're going to use them for the time being anyway.

old oak foot stool

From the description:
"Fantastic Pair of old carved Oak Stools, nicely carved in art nouveau, arts and crafts style, but possibly earlier. A really stylish pair of small oak stools, beautifully and deeply carved with foliage on the seats. Each stool is made of really nice coloured Oak which suggests these pieces have some age to them. The seats are nailed to the carcass and legs with four nails, one in each side, but I cannot see if these are hand made nails or not as the heads are not visible. The legs are nicely turned ending in turned feet as you can see on the photo’s. One of the seats is split clean down the middle – this has been glued at some point, but could be done much better by someone who is qualified. The stools are each 18 cm high, and the seats are 34cm by 19cm, and they look really great together as a pair, but you do need a small bum to sit on them…….which is why I am selling them :0)"

Wing-backed armchair

I've always wanted one of these, so when it came up for sale really cheaply thought it was worth a shot even if we had to invest in reupholstering it.

wingback armchair

From the description:
"I am selling this extremely comfy Edwardian (I believe, or could be early 20thC) wingback armchair. Its is absolutely solid, with no movement in any of the joints or frame. The material is freyed in places and little old fashioned so would make a great upholstry project for someone, or its certainly in good enough condition to leave as it is if you dont mind the colour. Dimensions are as follows.
Height 37" x Wide 31" x Depth 33" These are at the widest point"

Deck chair

Finally, we also got an old steamer chair. This was a little more hassle in that it turned out to have some woodworm (the guy stretched the truth about "good condition" in his listing!). But it is still solid. It had to live in the shed for a month till we were able to treat it, but now it's fine.

steamer chair

From the description:
"This is an unusual antique chair frame which extends to support the legs. I guess that it is Victorian but in truth I am not an expert, it could be a bit older or more recent. It is in good condition. It is part of the contents of an old house that I have just bought and which appears to have not been touched for a least a century. It can lay completely flat and I am advised that it is called a Steamer and that these things are quite difficult to get hold of".