Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

It’s been some years since my gardening was confined to a few houseplants and some pots balanced precariously outside a window but I still remember the compulsion to grow despite the lack of space.

It’s a challenge faced by many city dwellers with little more than a balcony or at best a small garden. Yet with just a little thought even the tiniest area can be turned over to plants.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster is the perfect guide to getting the best out of what little space you have.

Visually appealing with informative and inspirational photographs by Jason Ingram, it’s the sort of book that invites you in and I found myself starting to read as soon as it was delivered.

urban flowers

Dunster, a florist and award-winning planting designer – she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 RHS Hampton show with a small cutting garden – specialises in planting for urban spaces.

She starts by outlining why urban flowers are important: “the absence of greenery can actually cause us to feel stressed,” she says, urging us “plant it rather than paving it over”.

Examples are given of enlightened municipal planting, community schemes and small steps that make a big impact, such as putting flowers below street trees.

She then takes us through the basic steps required to turn an urban patch green from assessing the space available, including soil type and aspect, to drawing up a detailed plan.

Privacy, gloomy spots, maintenance and even buying compost without storage space are all tackled along with suggestions for using roofs, walls and steps for plants.

urban flowers

There are some nifty ideas for containers, including transforming the plastic trugs many gardeners use, old catering-sized tins and wooden boxes.

“With a little imagination you can create a container garden almost anywhere,” we’re told.

She outlines three contrasting styles – classic, contemporary and rurban, a mix of rural and urban – and details how to achieve them with ideas for hard landscaping and plants.

For me, the section that makes this book a winner is where she deals with colour and plant combinations.

Using five different colour combinations, she outlines plant partnerships for every season, including cultivation tips with each suggestion.

urban flowers
Thyme is suggested as a space filler in containers

Woven through are projects ranging from hiding ugly drainpipes with plants and creating a rose tepee to making a ‘herb wall’ and putting alpines in crates. I loved the dahlias grown in an old wooden box but wasn’t sure about growing pelargoniums suspended upside down.

The book ends with advice on getting more out of your plants including how to make cut flowers last, creating a preserved wreath and seed-harvesting.

And that’s the book’s strength: it may be primarily about urban flowers but the advice and ideas are applicable wherever you garden.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

Read more book reviews here.

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Cheered by the sight of yellow

The publication of the National Garden Scheme guide heralds the start of the gardening year and in Gloucestershire there’s lots on offer.

Maybe it’s the cheerful yellow cover but there’s nothing quite like the arrival of The National Garden Scheme’s handbook to lift the spirits.

It marks the start of the garden visiting season proper and opportunities to discover garden gems while raising cash for charity.

national garden scheme
Sezincote is one of the original NGS gardens

And it’s an anticipation that doesn’t dull with time; I’ve been writing about and visiting Gloucestershire NGS gardens for nearly two decades but I still eagerly await the new season.

Partly, it’s the possibility of discovering something new, partly the chance to revisit old favourites, to catch up with their owners and see what changes have been made.

The National Garden Scheme raises money for a range of charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care, and this year celebrates its 90th anniversary – dropping the ‘s’ on Garden in its name as part of a rebranding. Four Gloucestershire gardens have been opening since 1927: Berkeley Castle, Sezincote, Stanway House and Westonbirt School.

In Gloucestershire, the combination of entrance fees, plant sales and the famous homemade teas raised nearly £120,000 last year.

“We are delighted,” says county organiser Norman Jeffery. “It was our second-best result ever and slightly more than the previous year.”

This season, there are five new main plots in the Gloucestershire collection spread right across the area from the Forest of Dean to the north Cotswolds.

national garden scheme
Berkeley Castle is one of the ‘1927 gardens’

First to open among the newcomers is Forsdene Walk, Coalway, on April 30 and again on July 2. Regular Gloucestershire NGS supporters will know the owner, Pamela Buckland, from her previous garden, Meadow Cottage, which she opened for many years.

This is her new plot, which she has redesigned to have different areas filled with perennials, climbers and lots of pots.

The garden will open jointly with her former garden, which is also in Coalway.

The next new garden to open is Downton House, another small plot this time in the heart of Painswick. Owned by a plant enthusiast, this walled garden features many rare and unusual specimens and opens on May 17.

Greenfields, at Little Rissington, is a two-acre country garden surrounding a classic Cotswold stone house. It’s been developed over the past 16 years with a mix of flowers, fruit, veg and free-range hens. It opens on May 28.

Oakwood Farm did open last year to stage a plant fair but this year it’s joined by three gardens in the village of Upper Minety, near Cirencester. The event, on June 25 will include a flower festival in the village church and the plant fair featuring specialist nurseries.

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The Manor House, Blockley is part of a village opening

The last of the newcomers to open is Brocklehurst in Hawling, near Cheltenham. Described as a “romantic Cotswold garden”, it has traditional herbaceous borders and a woodland wildlife garden. The open dates, on July 2 and 9, will be combined with Littlefield, another NGS garden in the village.

In addition to these, there are several new gardens in long established village openings, including Blockley, Ashley & Culkerton and the Eastcombe, Bussage and Brownshill group events.

As part of the National Garden Scheme 90th anniversary celebrations, there is a special Festival Weekend on the Bank Holiday weekend from May 27-29. In Gloucestershire, 14 gardens, including two village events, will take place, promising a bonanza for garden-lovers.

For full details of individual openings, including timings and ticket prices, visit the NGS website.

The national handbook, Gardens to Visit 2017, is priced at £11.99. The Gloucestershire county booklet is free with donations welcomed.

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Review: Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray

If gardening books should inspire or inform, then Gardens of Marrakesh succeeds on both fronts.

Part history lesson, part traveller’s guide, it opens the door on a place rooted in its gardens.

gardens of marrakesh

Marrakesh was, author Angelica Gray tells us, planned as a garden city “with orchards, market gardens and pleasure gardens as part of its urban model”.

Today, the majority of historic sites are beloved as much for their gardens as their ancient buildings, several hotels have notable grounds and throughout the city high walls shield lush courtyard spaces from public view.

Gray takes us on a journey through the three main areas of the city: The Medina, its historic centre; The New Town created by ex-pats in the early 20th century; The Palmery, a thick band of palm trees described by Gray as “one of the wonders of Marrakesh”.

The gardens themselves mainly fall into one of two types: riad and arsat. The former is an enclosed, inward-looking, urban garden, the later a productive, irrigated space that often doubled as a space for relaxation.

gardens of marrakesh
Green and white tiles imitate the ripple of water at Dar Si Said

It is a journey into the unfamiliar for a Northern European gardener. Not only are the plants exotic – think cacti and citrus – the style is formal with blocks of planting offset against brightly coloured tiles, fountains and columns far removed from English herbaceous borders and rolling lawns.

While many of the gardens explored are centuries old, some are more modern and not all have been created by locals; Brazil, Sweden, Swiss and France are among the countries represented by designers of notable gardens.

Among the most memorable is The Jardin Majorelle, made by painter Jacques Majorelle. It first opened to the public in 1947 and is known for the startling cobalt blue that is used throughout the garden. It was rescued from decline following Majorelle’s death by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

gardens of marrakesh
Cobalt blue is used throughout Jardin Majorelle to memorable effect

Gardens of Marrakesh is a paperback edition of the original hardback, published in 2013 and, if there is a fault, it’s that the text has not been revised or updated. So, we are told The Bahia Palace is undergoing restoration and due to reopen in 2013 while a restoration project is planned at The Agdal, Marrakesh’s most important garden and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current state of either project is not clear.

That said, Gray’s deft weaving of historical fact and personal anecdote into the text make it an easy read while heat shimmers from the pages thanks to Alessio Mei’s atmospheric photographs.

Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray, photographs by Alessio Mei, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £14.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Digging into garden history

The history of gardens and allotments in Gloucestershire will be explored at a day-long series of talks this month.

Gloucestershire Local History Association is hosting its annual Local History Day on Saturday March 18, 2017, with three guest speakers.

Dr Jan Broadway will talk about the history of gardening societies in the county, Dr Jeremy Burchardt, from the University of Reading, will discuss Gloucestershire’s place in the early allotment movement and Michael Brown will present ‘Ghastly Gardening: Horticulture’s Horrible History’.

The event at Churchdown Community Centre, Churchdown, will include displays by Gloucestershire Archives, the County History Trust and the Gloucestershire Gardens & Landscape Trust.

Doors open at 10.30am and the event closes at 4pm. Admission is free and there will be refreshments available for a donation. A full timetable can be found at the association’s website .

The day has been sponsored by The Midcounties Co-operative Community Fund through the Gloucestershire Community Foundation.