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… Stockton Bury Gardens

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all of our lives in so many unexpected ways. ‘Social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘lockdown’ have all too quickly become phrases which trip off our tongues with a reluctant ease.

Lockdown has meant that a nation of gardeners, estimated at 23 million in the UK, has been able to spend weeks weeding and feeding, primping and preening their plots to perfection.

As the Government prepared to lock down the country, initial thinking was that gardens would remain open for visitors. Sadly though, as pubs, restaurants and theatres closed their doors, frustrated families flocked to our public gardens. The requisite two metre social distancing guidelines were quickly compromised and the garden gates of the nations favourite public green spaces were ordered shut. Despondent head gardeners reluctantly closed their creaking gates just as Mother Nature cut the ribbon to announce the start of another glorious gardening year.

Our gardens, now also in social-isolation from the publics’ gaze, have quietly grown away. Swathes of golden daffodils nodding only to each other, pink and white blossom falling gently onto deserted lawns and pathways, whilst only a handful of gardeners have delighted at the sweet fragrance pervading the empty spaces.

So enough is enough! I have contacted head gardeners across the country (who still have some limited access to their gardens) to send me a nosegay of hidden treasures from their glorious gardens now, and then again in summer.

The first in this short series is Stockton Bury Gardens.

Stockton Bury Gardens:

Location: Stockton Bury Gardens , Kimbolton, Leominster, Herefordshire , HR6 0HA

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

Size of garden: 4 acres

Who looks after the garden? Tamsin Westhorpe, curator and gardener at Stockton Bury alongside her two uncles Raymond Treasure and Gordon Fenn, who created the gardens 30 years ago. Jim is responsible for mowing the lawns.

What is the garden known for?

Stockton Bury is a real plantsmans’ garden. Raymond and Gordon were inspired by Raymond’s relative, the late John Treasure (well known for his garden at Burford House near Tenbury Wells). The gardens feature island borders which can be viewed from all around, which Tamsin says reminds her of looking at exhibits in a museum. Stockton Bury has no theme as such, but is amongst other things, a collection of beautiful plants.

How would you sum up your garden in spring?

Tamsin’s love of the gardens in spring is totally infectious, “The garden is amazing in spring”, she enthused. The Dingle Garden (a water garden) is a beautiful woodland garden including self-seeded primulas, wood anemones, Caltha palustris, Lysichiton americanus and daffodils galore including Narcissus ‘Winston Churchill’. “It’s a woodland garden, it’s water, its wonderful,” she says.

Self-seeded primulas in the Dingle Garden
Lysichiton americanus

Tulips this season include the bronze and flame-coloured Tulipa ‘Brown Sugar’, raspberry rippled T. ‘Carnaval de Nice’, the lily flowered, lemon-yellow T. ‘West Point’ and the blousy, deeply fringed, yellow and crimson splashed T. ‘Flaming Parrot’ in terracotta pots.

Favourite spring plant in the garden?

Tamsin tells me her spring favourites include the charming Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’, attention-grabbing trilliums and the exquisite and aptly named Erythronium ‘Pagodawith its butter-yellow flowers.

Giant wake-robin, Trillium chloropetalum
Exquisite Erythronium ‘Pagoda’

Specialist Plants: Most gardens have tucked within their ranks some hidden treasures or plants with specialist appeal. At Stockton Bury these include:

The winter to early spring flowering climber Tropaeoleum tricolour with its myriad, paper-like red, black and yellow flowers.

The Chilean Glory Flower, Eccremocarpus scaber, with terminal clusters of tubular, reddish-orange flowers, and

Smrynium perfoliatum, an upright, euphorbia-like biennial with chartreuse foliage which flowers in late spring, which Tamsin says is best grown from seed.

What’s new in the garden for spring?

A plinth has already been erected in the garden, awaiting the arrival of a statue commissioned by a local artist. Tamsin told me “Stockton Bury revolves around local craftsmen, and businesses, recycling and reclaiming materials.”

Bee boles, snake’s head fritillaries and daffodils basking in the spring sunshine
Majestic crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis
Staphylea colchica, small, white, fragrant, bell-shaped flowers in late spring
Beautiful Magnolia stellata against a clear, blue sky
Tulips and terracotta rhubarb forcers
Anemone nemorosa
Perfect combination, blue grape hyacinths and yellow daffodils

The Dingle

With special thanks to Tamsin Westhorpe for allowing me access to her personal collection of photographs for this article.

We will revisit Stockton Bury Gardens in summer, when once again, the garden gates will be unlocked.