Chatty Man

Many words have been written about the current and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve even written a couple of pieces myself. The phrase ‘du jour’, ‘in these unprecedented times’ has fallen too easily and too readily from our lips.

The coronavirus lockdown presented many of us with more time on our hands than we’ve had since ‘Betwixtmas’, those odd days between Christmas and New Year, multiplied by ten, plus a bit more. My ever expanding waistline bears testament to that (and not a soggy sprout in sight – there’s a silver lining)!

Like so many of us, my garden has been my sanctuary during these difficult times. My place of normality amid madness, my haven away from the horrifying statistics. Not a weed left to be weeded, not a blade of grass bent out of shape.

Just ahead of lockdown, idling time on Instagram, I watched two young lads from the last ‘Great British Bake Off’ ‘go live’ and prepare a dish in front of 300 plus ‘viewers’. It was both awkward and hilarious at times but I found myself completely captivated and unable to turn off the ‘Insta-feed’ (I think that’s what the young ‘uns call it). Having a virtual nosey around these young guys’ kitchens was utterly absorbing. Subconsciously, I filed a virtual post-it note into the old grey matter with the words ‘ I CAN DO THAT’ written in capitals across it.

On 27th March 2020, four days of lockdown under my (already tightening) belt, I too found myself pressing the Instagram ‘LIVE’ button in my back garden. I waffled aimlessly for a good five minutes in front of a handful of people who had clearly stumbled unknowingly across this ‘unfolding’ event. With a ‘captive’ audience (of FOUR people) I warmed to my theme. I showed off my weed-free borders, my newly mown lawn (following the first cut of the season) and crowed on endlessly about my trays of tender seedlings in the greenhouse. And I wasn’t finished. I wittered on about the newly erected fencing, the colour of the paint I had used, what my plans were for this area. Spring had literally only just sprung and in all honesty there was little to be seen in my garden. At the end of this 20 minute ‘tour’, numbers had shot up to ELEVEN! Flushed with success I was hungry for more. And, as happy as I was that eleven people had tuned in, I really wanted a few more. Already, my brief moment in the spotlight turning me into a monster!

I took to social media and ‘promoted’ my next ‘Weekly Wander’.

I took to social media to promote my Instagram ‘Weekly Wander’

Week two saw my viewing figures double. Questions were asked of me on the Insta-feed (look at me mastering the lingo), lovely comments were added and advice sought. I loved this!

Over the following weeks the upward viewing trend continued. Clearly, I’m not talking millions, thousands or even hundreds; Monty Don need not reach for the ‘situations vacant’ column just yet! However, many people from across the country and indeed across the world (well, America, Canada, Belgium and the Isle of Wight) tuned in. Some even taking the time to contact me via social media to thank me, and others claiming they looked forward to my ‘weekly wanders’. More questions came my way, about my garden, their gardens, my plants and their plants. I REALLY loved this!

By week six, numbers still rising, I needed to shake the format up a little. During one of my previous weekly tours, the annual plague of locusts, (well, lily beetle and molluscs) that descend upon our gardens was discussed. A wildlife friendly spray deterrent was endorsed by many of my ‘followers’ (that’s what Instagram calls people who ‘follow’ someone; it sounds a bit ‘fans of Britney Spears’ to me, but then that’s me turning into my dad, I guess). Buoyed up with my newly found ‘Insta-fame'(!), I contacted the management of Grazers, the company selling the aforementioned pest deterrent. They were ‘happy’ for me to ‘interview’ their technical consultant, Hugh Frost, about their products. Channelling Richard Branson, I even negotiated a 15% discount for any of my ‘followers’ who purchased their products following our ‘broadcast’. The following Friday, Hugh Frost, joined me live. They call this process ‘sharing the screen’, with Hugh appearing in the bottom half and me in the top half, channeling Michael Parkinson like there’s no tomorrow.

Now the bit was really between my teeth!  I needed MORE guests.

A few weeks earlier, worrying about the gathering momentum of COVID-19, I found myself wide awake at silly o’clock, sat in the garden recording the dawn chorus on my phone. As one does, I shared an excerpt of our chirruping feathered friends on Twitter (where else?). Amongst those who responded to my birdy tweet were world renowned and Chelsea flower show garden designers Jo Thompson and Ann-Marie Powell (yes, really!). We exchanged tweets like we were long lost friends, with Jo recommending an app that records birdsong and tells you which birds you are listening to. It’s great. It’s called ChirpOMatic, should you ever find yourself wondering what exactly is warbling in the woods.

Two weeks later, the cogs in my brain working overtime, I sent a late night Instagram message to my new ‘friend’ Jo asking if she might consider being my guest one Friday morning. Immediately embarrassed at my late night delusions, I threw the phone under the bed in disgust. How ridiculous! Cleverly though, I hadn’t told anybody that I had contacted her. Then, two whole days later my phone pinged the arrival of her response. ‘Yes, Mr ChirpOMatic’ she joked, ‘I’d love to.’

So, week ten had me chatting away with my new BFF, Jo Thompson. It was great fun, and provoked a huge response from the little community of gardeners who tune in to watch me each week.

My first ‘chat’ with world renowned garden designer, Jo Thompson

Was it too soon to contact Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don or Carol Klein? Yes, of course it was. But I wasn’t going to be put off, not now. A message was swooshed off to my other garden designer ‘buddy’, Ann-Marie Powell, who has also used lockdown to go live on Instagram EVERY SINGLE day, for half an hour to chat about all things gardening. Her Insta-Live, ‘My Real Garden’ and has proven to be EXTREMELY popular.

Again, a couple of days before another ‘yes’ response. It felt like a dream. Why had these lovely garden designers agreed to chat with me? I’m A COMPLETE unknown and more to the point, clearly not Graham Norton, or indeed Jonathan Ross.

Overflowing with confidence following my Jo Thompson chat, my interview with Ann-Marie couldn’t have gone any better. Ann-Marie had agreed to about thirty minutes. Twenty five minutes flashed past, so I began to wind down our chat, like a reluctant kid being dragged away prematurely from a birthday party.

‘I’m conscious time is running away’ I interjected.

‘No! I’m enjoying it. Let’s carry on’! Ann-Marie beamed.

Laughing through lockdown with Ann-Marie Powell

And so the chatting continues.

To date, in addition to Jo Thompson and Ann-Marie Powell, I have spoken to royal and celebrity florist, Simon Lycett, Gardeners’ World ‘swoon’ sensation, chicken keeper and author, Arthur Parkinson, RHS judge, author and one time editor of ‘The English Garden’ magazine, Tamsin Westhorpe, blogger and author, Laetitia Maklouf, Instagram vegetable growing sensation Lucy Hutchings and still more in the pipeline.

Author, RHS judge and gardener, Tamsin Westhorpe
Chatting to Arthur Parkinson on the hottest day of the year
Royal and celebrity florist Simon Lycett
Discussing rhubarb pie with Laetitia Maklouf
Instagram edible grower sensation Lucy Hutchings

COVID-19 has reminded me and I’m sure all of us that life is truly precious; we only come this way once. Don’t put of til tomorrow what can be done today! I’m so, so glad I pressed that ‘LIVE’ button on 27 March.

To see my chats click the names highlighted above. Or click here.

Unlocking the Garden Gates… Dr Neil’s Garden

It’s week five of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, it’s been approximately five weeks since Mother Nature bought spring back to our woodlands, our countryside and our gardens. And, since that time the garden gates of our public gardens have remained locked; shutting out the public, including an estimated 23 million gardeners, from witnessing the joyous and uplifting spectacle of spring.

In this series of articles to date, the garden gates of Stockton Bury, Borde Hill and Knoll Gardens have been quietly ‘unlocked’. A stunning collection of exclusive photographs, taken by the owners, curators or head gardeners themselves, has taken us into their glorious gardens and allowed us all to witness, from afar, the stunning splendour of spring in these special places.

This week we travel the long and winding road to Edinburgh and unlock the garden gates of Dr Neil’s Garden.

Misty morning over Loch Doddingston

DR NEIL’S GARDEN

Dr Neil’s Garden was created in the late 1960s by husband and wife team, Andrew and Nancy Neil. The couple were both General Practitioners, hence the eponymously named, Dr Neil’s Garden.

Having found the site, a south facing hillside idyll overlooking the picturesque Duddingston Loch, the doctors set about building their garden on the previously uncultivated hillside. After ten years hard work the doctors had completed their garden and set about maintaining it alongside a handful of volunteers from their patient lists.

In 1998, Dr Neil’s Garden Trust was founded to protect the garden’s future.

In 2000, the elderly doctors enlisted the help of Claudia Pottier, who discovered a beautiful garden that despite it’s perfect outlook, was beginning to disappear under mature trees, azaleas and heathers. ‘The bones of the garden were still there…, and it was still magical’, Claudia explained. But there was work to be done. Sadly, both doctors passed away within a year of each other in 2005 and 2006.

The garden is usually open to the public from March to October and is now a well loved ‘secret’ in Edinburgh.

Drs Andrew and Nancy Neil

Location: Dr Neil’s Garden, Old Church Lane, Duddingston Village, Edinburgh, EH15 3PX

Website: http://www.drneilsgarden.co.uk

Size of garden: 2.5 acres

Who looks after the garden?

Claudia Pottier and a ‘wonderful band of seventeen dedicated volunteers’.

Volunteers’ lunch

What is the garden known for?

Claudia says ‘The garden is a sum of its parts. We have beautiful views from all angles with only one house and the tower of the 12th century Duddingston Kirk in view. There are many hidden benches that catch the sun in sheltered spots with views over the loch towards the Pentland Hills.’

‘What is most special about the garden is its tranquility’, Claudia tells me. ‘You wouldn’t know you were in the centre of Edinburgh.’

Dr Neil’s garden is alive with butterflies, mayflies, birds, bats and woodpeckers, due largely to Claudia’s admirable insistence of not allowing the use of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers in the garden. They do, however, have one rather unwanted visitor, the Great Diving Beetle, a large voracious predator of ponds and slow-moving waterways.

Sunset over Loch Doddingston

How would you sum up your garden in spring?

The garden has interest throughout the year, with only ‘a wee lull in about July’, after which the late summer herbaceous border blazes right through the autumn into the ‘bony severity of winter’.

Claudia thinks that the garden is at its most floriferous in spring with cherry blossoms, many different narcissi, grape hyacinths, erythroniums, bergenias, species tulips and different varieties of heather. Claudia also allows self-sown forget-me-nots, honesty and welsh poppies in controlled drifts. ‘And why not?’ she asks.

Bank of narcissi

Erythronium californium

Favourite spring plants in the garden?

I’ve asked each gardener to tell me their favourite spring plant. ‘How can anyone have just one favourite?’ Claudia exclaims before citing Cornus nuttalii (mountain dogwood), the breathtaking, blue-flowered Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’ and Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley) with its sweetly scented, bell shaped flowers. The list of Claudia’s favourites continues with the gorgeous, shell pink, bell-shaped flowers of Rhododendron orbiculare, erythroniums, the long-lasting flowers of grevillea and epimediums, including the dainty E. ‘Lilafee’.

Fritillaria imperialis contrasting beautifully with Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’
Epimedium ‘Lilafee’

Specialist plants:

Dr Neil’s garden is home to some super specimen trees including the beautiful handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera with its distinctive, tulip shaped yellow and green flowers, the deciduous conifer, Metasequioa glyptostroboides, Halesia monticola and Sequoia sempervirens.

What’s new in the garden for spring?

Last year a beautiful Prunus ‘Okame’ was planted in the garden in memory of a much loved volunteer, Ruth, who sadly lost her battle with cancer. Ruth had volunteered at Dr Neil’s Garden for five years.

Volunteers working away in Dr Neil’s Garden
Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Randall’s White’
The entrance to the garden
The darkest hellebore
Towards the centre of the garden

With special thanks to Claudia Pottier for her time and her own beautiful photographs of Dr Neil’s Garden.

I will be unlocking the garden gates of another garden shortly.