West Coast of Japan – A threatened beauty

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My trip to Japan wasn’t all about the gardens, it was more about experiencing Japan  and trying to get a little insight into its fascinating culture.  As I have said we travelled in a sort of zig-zag south from Kyoto.  A couple of days were spent on the west coast based in a town call Hagi.  Definitely off the western tourist trail but it gave us the opportunity to visit the south-western coastline which was so influential on early Japanese garden design.img_8201-1

It is easy to see how this coastal landscape with rocky outcrops topped with pines (or maybe they are larches?) inspired Japanese gardens.

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Being much further south from Kyoto the natural vegetation is more evergreen and lush.  For someone who had struggled with the obsessive tidiness and control of the gardens we had seen I welcomed the opportunity to be in a more natural environment.

However, sadly, this beautiful landscape is not what it seems.  The west coast of Japan suffers from being landfall for a signficant amount of the plastic waste discarded into the ocean by China and its neighbours – its referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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This photo does not really show very well the volume of the rubbish (it goes much further up out of shot) but we were shocked when we looked down  from the nature trail path to see inlets full of plastic rubbish, and it smelt.  For a country like Japan which is obsessive about cleanliness and where you never ever see rubbish anywhere this must be a real challenge to cope with. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say I have never been to such a tidy country; it was remarkable, considering the Japanese obsession with package, that there seemed to be no rubbish.  If you have a packed lunch, a bento box, you pack up your rubbish and you take it home and dispose of it.  Once home, or in the hotel, or wherever, the bins are all clearly marked with three categories which seem to be the same country-wide. So how annoying and frustrating it must be to have to sort out your neighbour’s rubbish.

I was so surprised by the amount of rubbish that I did some research when I got home to find out where it came from and as this post and this post explain it is a real problem for Japan.  Both posts refer to an initiative by Ocean Cleanup to try to address the problem but you have to feel for Japan when they deal with their own rubbish and end up having to deal with someone else’s as well.  It certainly has made me even more aware of the need to think about what plastics I use and how I dispose of them.

Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)

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Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was our first Japanese garden of the tour and delivered on many of the archetypal Japanese garden elements. I’ve already shown you the Golden Pavilion, the garden of Yoshimitsu, and the Silver Pavilion is the garden of his grandson, Yoshimasa (1435-1490).

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Ginkaku-ji is home to some early examples of the dry landscape gardens of the late Muromachi era; these symbolise the ocean and the mountain. The ocean (above) is represented by ginshanada which means ‘silver sand open sea’ and you can see that the sand is raked to represent the waves.  I am curious as to how often the sand has to be raked.  Having peered at it and other sand gardens we saw it seems that the sand must be combined with something to keep it in shape, otherwise surely when it rains the patterns would be destroyed.  You can just about see how sharp the edges of the sand platform are and to my simple mind the sand must have been treated in some way to keep this looking good.

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Again, looking at the second element of the sand garden – the mountain, kogestsudai, a ‘platform facing the moon’, you can see how precise the shape is especially the flat top. The dry sand elements are based on zen principles and are intended for contemplation.

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I have to admit to being left rather cold by the sand gardens we saw, particularly as they are so antiseptic in appearance encouraging no wildlife whatsoever.

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I much preferred the garden away from the dry sand garden.  Near the Silver Pavilion you have a strolling garden which is a variation of the gardens, exemplified by the Golden Pavilion and would probably have originally been intended to be viewed from boats on the lake or from within the temples.  The current garden is much diminished in size from Yoshimasa’s time having only two buildings left of the original twelve.

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Having done some research since my return this waterfall could well be the ‘sengestsu-sen’ waterfall which means ‘spring in which the moon washes’ and apparently it is intended to capture the reflection of the moon ‘washing’ itself in the waters.  I much prefer the greenness of this part of the garden over the grey of the dry sand.

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From the lower part of the garden you traverse steep paths up the slopes to the upper garden from where you have wonderful views out over Kyoto. The upper garden is a moss garden with streams, islands and bridges. The path then brings you back past the Silver Pavilion.

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The Silver Pavilion is a bit of an enigma as there are no silver elements so no rationale for it name.  As Ginkaku-ji was not finished before Yoshimasa’s death in 1490 then I suppose its possible that there was an intention to finish the Pavilion along the lines of the Golden Pavilion, other theories are that the name was coined to distinguish it the two Pavilions or alternatively because the moon’s light was reflected off the building’s former dark timber.

The pavilion you see in these photos was reconstructed in 2010; we soon learnt during our travels that few of the buildings we saw were original.  Hardly surprising given the construction is based on timber, prone to fires and earthquake damage.

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For me the nicest part of the garden was up in the high garden amongst the trees, which were slowly changing colour for the Autumn, and looking out across Kyoto.

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Whilst I was bowled over by the splendour of the Golden Pavilion, I preferred the quieter gentleness of the Silver Pavilion garden.

 

End of Month View – November 2016

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I initially started this post by saying that as I have been away most of November very little has happened to Hugh’s Border, the focus of this year’s End of Month View.  How very presumptuous of me! Of course things have happened as Nature has no interest in whether or not I am present to witness the seasonal changes, nor does she really need me to assist her.

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If I am honest this time of year is very helpful in re-engaging my interest as I do enjoy tidying in the garden and I spent a happy couple of hours after taking these photos dead-heading, weeding and clearing up.  It is so satisfying to see a tidy border especially when you compare it to a shambolic one next door.

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Whilst Hugh’s Border has sat there minding its own business slowly fading into it’s winter slumbers there have been changes elsewhere.  I have a need to improve the structure of the garden which has been a little Heath Robinson in the past.  I doubt very much that any self-respecting landscaper would think the updates are much of an improvement on Heath Robinson but we take what we can get and the thick board edges to the Big Border are already changing the feel of the space. Previously the edging was made up of a collection of Malvern stone but it was uneven and not clearly defined.  The intention is to repeat the edging on the other side of the path, but using narrower wood so the edging sort of steps down.  I am toying with what to finish the path with. It was originally wood chip which has a habit of breaking down and needing regularly updating; the other problem with wood chip is that at this time of year you end of up with brown borders and a brown path and it is all a little uninspiring.  Therefore I am thinking of finishing the path with gravel – despite the cat’s protests – as this would give a visual break to the border and will also link to the gravel steps that the path runs off.  We are also replacing the risers on the gravel steps as some of them are showing their age.

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There has been another key change in the garden which will have a significant impact and that is the removal of the majority of the trees from my neighbour’s garden.  Whilst I was away the tree surgeons have removed the large sycamore tree which was planted on our boundary near the house, as well as some ash seedlings. They have also removed most of the trees along the far boundary so now on a good day we can see a wider view of the hills.  The light is positively flooding in, even on a grey autumnal day, so it will be fascinating to see how things hold up in the height of summer. Having spent some 10 years battling with shade it is quite strange to consider the option of more flowers and I have already found myself mentally changing the focus of what was the woodland border to something more floral.

However, whilst I am happy to embrace the challenge of new lighting to the garden I do miss the height that the trees bought.  Having received a photo from my son, during my travels, of the new garden view I spent some time day dreaming about potential trees that could be added to the garden.  I carried out a lot of research whilst on trains and buses, considered the various acers and sorbus in the Japanese gardens and then bought a Liquidamber on impulse from the local plant nursery this week. It’s already been planted with the expectation that the dark leaves will provide a good contrast to the green of the Euphorbia.

I could also bore you with my mini-rockery that I constructed last week but there really is nothing much to see at the moment but hopefully in the spring there will be something worth sharing.

Given the above I am hopefully that 2017 will bring more time and enthusiasm for the garden and that the quality of the posts on this blog will improve accordingly.

The Art of Kiku

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I was about to write about the Silver Pavilion, a natural progression after the Golden Pavilion in my last post, but I spotted these photos I took of Chrysanthemums on my first day and have ended up researching why they are grown as they are which is very different to the Western approach.

Having arrived in Kyoto after goodness knows how long travelling, starving and suffering from sleep deprivation I wasn’t allowed to check into my hotel room for another 3 hours.  I stumbled into a small restaurant, where no English was spoken and I was the only Westerner and woman, ordered probably the wrong thing, accidentally ate a large and very hot chilli and to be quite honest wanted to go home!.  Anyway, I decided the best thing to do was to get some fresh air so I walked up the main road from the hotel for a while; being Japan I soon came to a large temple, the Higashi-Hongan-ji Temple.  

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I wasn’t sure if it was OK to go in but a very nice man with excellent English in a bright yellow T-shirt welcomed me.  He explained that the temple buildings were closed that day to the public as they were inducting a new Head Priest (I think) in and people had travelled from all over Japan to attend.  However, I was welcome to explore the grounds, take photos, and there was a bonsai exhibition to look at.  I can’t tell you how much better I felt after talking to that gentleman – I felt normal again instead of an alien on my own in a strange country.

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It turned out that the bonsai were in fact bonsai Chrysanthemums, or Kiku in Japanese.  The display did seem appropriate to my circumstances that day – something else very different and alien!

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The kiku is a key symbol in Japan.  It represents longevity and rejuvenation and is the symbol of the Japanese royal family.  We had been due to go to a kiku festival, or kiku matsuri,  when we got to Kyushu but due to the earthquake in this area earlier in the year our itinerary had been changed.

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I find these plants fascinating and looking back they were the first example of the extraordinarily controlling approach to horticulture the Japanese have which some of us found a little challenging.  In fact this approach, to me, represents much of Japanese culture which is very ordered and controlled.

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I have learnt a little more about kiku and how there are numerous classes of plants which are shown at kiku matsuri throughout Japan in the Autumn. I wish I had known a more when I saw these displays as I think I would have appreciated them more.  Well, maybe ‘appreciate’ is the wrong word as to me the plants were too manipulated but I would have understood better instead of being completely baffled by this exhibit.

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As you can imagine I was completely perplexed by these as it seemed that someone had deliberately sat on the flowers.  However, having found a wonderful post about kiku on Botany Boys blog I can tell you that these are ichimonji or komonshoukiku and are meant to represent ‘noble family crests’ like this.

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The flowers are displayed with white discs of paper under to stop them flopping.

Another class can be seen in the top photo – the kudamono, or what we know as the spider chrysanthemum.  You will see that each bloom is held up by a wire disc.

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Another class, presumably of one stem – the flowers were very small so I’m not sure what the judging criteria is on these.

There are also cascading chrysanthemums which I saw a few examples of during my travels, especially at various temples but I am unable to locate any photos of.

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This is how the kiku are displayed at the festivals and here you have a mix of the spiders, referred to above, plus some atsumono which are the large flowered kiku.

I found these displays fascinating. Whether or not you agree with the approach it is always interesting to see something new as it makes you question and challenge your own preconceptions.

If you are interested in learning more about the Japanese kiku I also found these interesting posts from the New York Botanical Garden where they appear to have had a display and the Japan Times.

Matt Mattus, over at Growing with Plants, appears to be interested in the Japanese approach to Chrysanthemums as well – I might just have to get some advice from him as I have a hankering to have a go at bonsai or the cascades.

 

 

 

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

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Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is the iconic temple of Kyoto. Dating from the late 14th century, the temple was originally the retirement villa of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  After his death in 1408, in accordance with his wishes, it become a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect.

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The temple is built over 3 floors with each floor representing a different style of architecture. The first floor, housing statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha, is built in the Shinden style which was used for palace buildings during the Heian Period, which predated the Muromachi era (1336-1573).   The second floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences.  The samurai, whilst originally warriors, increasingly  became more and more powerful setting up a military government in 1192 and ruling over the country for the next 700 years. The second and third floors are covered in gold leaf – hence the name The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The third floor is built in the style of the Chinese Zen Hall, and is also gilded inside and capped with a golden phoenix.

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The Golden Pavilion, built in the early years of the Muromachi era, continues the Heian garden prototype with ponds and islands.  During the Heian period the intention was that the temples and gardens were viewed from boats; and there are contemporary records recording boating parties and festivities.  In the Muromachi era the intention was that the garden was viewed from specific points from within the temple;  at this time the chisen kaiyu teien ‘pond-spring-strolling-garden’ was developed. Contemporary records show that the Golden Pavilion was intended to be viewed from boats, as in the Heian era, although the garden could be admired from the three storeys of the Pavilion whose geometric proportions means that any view was harmoniously framed.

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The pond on which the Pavilion is sited has an inner and outer pond; the outer pond has a couple of small islands and in addition there are two larger turtle islands facing in opposite directions.

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Having passed the Golden Pavilion the visitor is taken up a windy path past the Anmintaku Pond, which it is claimed never dries up.

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The light on the day we visited was extraordinary causing the most wonderful reflections in the pond and the sun really made the pavilion sparkle.  We were grateful that we hadn’t visited two days before when we spent the day under heavy skies and dodging the rain.

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A striking feature of the majority of the Japanese gardens we saw was their tidiness.  There was rarely a leaf out of place and as you can see from this photo the moss is being raked for some unknown purpose. We also saw moss and lichen being trimmed and other very labour intensive approaches to horticulture which made our issues with lawn edging seem quite pedestrian.

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Being Kyoto we couldn’t avoid encountering a group of young ladies all dressed up in traditional dress who were only too happy to pose for us, subject to a high level of bowing and smiling.

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This is the key photo opportunity area and as you can see it is incredibly busy.  However, with their usual efficiency, the Japanese manage the visitors in such a way that you don’t really feel that you have been managed, everyone gets their chance to take any photos they want, and there is no pushing or frayed tempers.

The Golden Pavilion is, in many people’s view, the Taj Mahal of Japan and you can see why this might be so given its opulence and stunning setting. I too thought it was stunning, however, I don’t think I would go as far as saying it was my highlight of the trip – I much preferred the quieter more modern gardens which weren’t so obsessively managed.

 

Going Japanese

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Anyone who follows me on Instagram or Facebook will know I have been travelling around southern Japan for the last two and half weeks and posting regular photos.  I am now home and want to share the things I saw and experienced.  In the past I have done posts on a day to day basis from trips but this time I am planning to theme the posts more.  The trip was planned and led by Noel Kingsbury and its premise was to experience both the gardens and culture of southern Japan. I travelled with a multi-national group of 19, some keen gardeners, some horticulturists and garden designers.

Our trip started in Kyoto and ended in Fukuoka and involved travelling on trains, ferries, planes, and buses.

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Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 for over a 1000 year until the Emperor moved to Tokyo. As such it is a city full of temples with their wonderful temple gardens and oozing in history and culture. So much so that we frequently encountered groups of young Japanese who were visiting the city so they could dress up in traditional costume and in particular visit the historic Higashiyama area.  Our time here was spent visiting a range of temple gardens including the iconic Golden Pavilion.

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Moving from Kyoto to Naoshima we discovered a very different mood.  The island, is an art island, with many of the art installations having been installed by the Bennesse Corporation, which oversees the art gallerys and museums on the island in the inland sea. It is the brain child of Ando Tadao.

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Back to the mainland and the west coast where we stayed in Matsue for a couple of days. The primary reason for visiting this area was to see the Adachi Museum Garden, said by some to be one of the best gardens in the world.  We also hiked on Mt Daisen on a wet and misty day which for me was quite magical.

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From Matsue we went along the coast of the Sea of Japan to Hagi.  Our primary reason for visiting this area was to see the coastline which has influenced much of what we know as the Japanese Garden style.  We also visited a wonderful shrine, a limestone plateau and some caves.

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Then after a long day on the bullet train and a ferry we arrived at Yakushima.  

Yakushima is an island in the East China Sea which took up two and half hours to reach on a hydro-foil.  It is one of the most southerly parts of Japan and has the highest rainfall – 10,000mm a year in the mountainous centre. The island is a popular destination for botanists as the forest – which is borderline sub-tropical is almost pristine.

Our final destination, albeit it for one night before we set off on our journeys home, was Fukuoka. I only saw it at night-time due to an early flight home the next day but I was struck by the contrast to Kyoto and how modern Fukuoka is by comparison.  Apparently, this is because it was bombed heavily in World War II and has had to be rebuilt.  It was definitely a city that I and my friend Ines would have liked more time in.

As I indicated above I will no doubt bore you over the coming weeks with more detailed posts on various elements of the trip but aside from the specific amazing places we saw what I really enjoyed about this trip was seeing the real Japan.  It is all too easy to visit a large city such as Tokyo or London and feel that you have a feel for Japan or the UK; but you would be wrong.  By travelling on public transport zig-zagging across the country and staying in towns where I didn’t see any Westerners apart from those in our group, we really experienced Japan and met some wonderfully friendly and helpful people along the way. There is a view that the Japanese don’t have a particular liking for Westerners but we consistently found ourselves in conversations with all sorts of people, often on trains or in lifts, and sometimes through exaggerated sign language – they were curious about  where we were from and going to (and why!).  As with anywhere in the world regardless of who you are and whether you can speak the same language a smile and politeness brings many rewards.

End of Month View – October 2016

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Well Autumn is truly upon us now.  The Colchicums are flowering, the leaves are falling and the clocks went back an hour last night.  I’ve always enjoyed Autumn, just as I do Spring.  I remember as a child one of the highlights of the season was raking up huge piles of beech leaves and jumping into them. For some reason autumn leaves always seem to be damp these days so not conducive to jumping in.

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Hugh’s Border is slowly losing its foliage and preparing for winter but many of the plants are deciduous so some interest will remain through the winter.  Come early spring the snowdrops will flower and if I remember rightly some narcissus.

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I’m including some photos of the wider view mainly because I have treated myself to a wide-angle lens ahead of my trip to Japan in a week’s time.  We will be doing a lot of travelling to temples, castles and into the wider landscape so I thought a wide-angle lens would be a worthwhile investment – well that’s the excuse I am making to myself! The photos on this post are all with the new lens and it means I can show you the wider garden view so the different bits make more sense and you soon realise just how small the garden is and inevitably how much it slopes.

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Oh and you are probably spotted the large timber scattered around.  These are to replace some of the risers on the steps from the patio and also to provide a more definitive edge to the bottom of the Big Border.  Work has started now that many of the plants are being cut back and there is less chance of damage from large feet.  The aim is to get the new hard landscaping completed over the winter before my spring bulbs start making life more challenging for the landscaper.

Its interesting looking at these photos how much colour there is still in the garden and how much of it comes from foliage as opposed to flowers – reinforcement of my view that if you get the foliage right the flower are just the icing on the cake.

Anyone is welcome to join in with the End of Month meme.  You can use it to follow a specific part of the garden through the year or to give your readers a tour of the whole garden – whatever works for you. I like to follow one area through the year as it helps me to be more critical of the space and make improvements.  All I ask is that you leave a link to your post in the comments box below and link back to this post in yours – that way everyone can connect.

Book Review: RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

One of the best presents my sons ever bought me was the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants probably about 10 years ago.  A hugely valuable resource that opens the keen amateur gardener’s eyes to the amazing world of plants.  Naturally, having loved this publication for many years I was interested to be offered a review copy by Dorling Kingsley of their new edition, published on 9th September 2016.

The new edition includes an additional 5000 new plants and claims “to incorporate the latest research and know how from over 70 horticultural experts led by the world-renowned plantsman Christopher Brickell”. It’s a beautiful edition presented in a strong robust carry-box, the ideal present for that special gardener in your life.  However, it’s a weighty tome coming in at 1118 pages whereas its predecessor was split between two volumes making it much easier, in my opinion, to use.  Interestingly, despite the size and weight of the book, there has been a reduction in the information section at the start of the book. Gone are the sections on Plant Problems; Pests, Diseases and Disorders; and specific information about various plant groups such as Trees, Shrubs, Orchids, Ferns.  I presume the decision was taken to remove these sections to allow space for the additional 5000 plants. I think it is a pity as I have often found these sections as useful as the actual encyclopedia – my version is a sort of one stop shop.

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But putting my grumbles aside, which are purely based on the fact that I have an earlier version, this book really is an essential acquisition for all keen gardeners and horticulturists.  It is obviously an A-Z and each Genus is set out with an introduction, general cultivation information and then individual plant entries which start with the botanical name.  The plant entry has specific details about the plant with descriptions of flowers, leaves, stems, overall height and width, geographical origin and hardiness. The entry is then further sub-divided into variants and cultivars.  Not all plants have photographs but there are sufficient to make it very appealing.  In addition there are drawings of distinct or complex features of the larger genera which show any variations in flowers or leaves.

The price of the book is £75 but I think this is reasonable given the amount of information you get which even with the seemingly never-ending plant name changes will provide probably the most valuable resource the gardener ever needs.  I have to admit to drifting to tapping into the internet more these days for plant information as its so easy but it is also quite limited and there is never the breadth of varieties as there are in this book.

So yes if you are looking for that very special present or if you have someone who might indulge you then I would really recommend the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

The new front garden – end of the first year.

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The stalwarts amongst my readership will recall that I have had a love/hate relationship with my front garden.  The lawn has changed its shape a number of times over the years but I still didn’t enjoy being out there.  Then back at the start of the year I bit the bullet and decided to get rid of the lawn once and for all and plant up the whole of the front garden.

January 2016

January 2016

This is how the front garden looked at the end of January – all very neat and tidy but dull, uninspiring and as some of my regular readers said just not me. So during the course of the first half of the year the lawn was lifted and removed and a curving path put in from the driveway to the side gate.  The path is more decorative and to give the front garden some structure rather than for a specific purpose but I have seen it used by a visitor which was very gratifying.

July 2016

July 2016

We decided that the path needed a good strong edge as it is the only landscape feature so my eldest kindly put in a  brick edge which I am really pleased with.  In fact if it wasn’t for him doing the edging and my youngest son lifting the lawn I don’t think I would have got very far with the project at all.  In my usual back to front way the path went in after the majority of the plants mainly because I wanted to see where the natural route would fall and also because the plants needed to get in the ground before the summer was over.

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The path is finished now and the majority of the planting is done.  I need to tweak the asters around a bit as they went in quite small and I had lost their labels years ago so it was a bit hit and miss how it would turn out.  I have a darker flowered aster – Symphytrochium novea-angliae ‘St Michaels’-  in the back garden which I will divide and add to the new border as I think I need a darker purple to lift the others.

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This is the view from the driveway to the front of the house and I love how pretty it looks. These photos were taken at the start of the month and last weekend I lifted all the zinnias.  They will be replaced with tulips and maybe some wallflowers. I have also added some snowdrops and small narcissus along the path edges. Next year I suspect I will also add alliums.

So to conclude I am absolutely delighted that I took the plunge and got rid of the lawn.  I actually enjoy being in the front garden now, I love looking at it in the morning from my bedroom window – it just makes me smile. In addition it is more wildlife friendly than the previous front garden with lots of bees and other pollinators buzzing around the flowers and more birds fidgeting around the border.