Author, freelance journalist and B&B owner Melanie Cable-Alexander has visited many gardens over the years having been features editor of Country Life. Here she recalls some memorable gardening moments.
What is your favourite flower?
At this time of year one of my favourite flowers are snowdrops. When I moved to Somerset I took over a garden which was once carpeted by them together with cyclamen and these were followed by daffodils every year until squirrels targeted the snowdrops one year. I’ve now been planting some ‘in the green’. The advantage of buying snowdrops at this stage it is easier to see how they look in the garden as you arrange them. I also adore wildflowers and roses.
Which rose sticks in your mind most?
My husband used to exhibit at Chelsea every year; he ran a family business making Gothic follies. His stand, off main avenue, always featured masses of roses which are his favourite plants, many of which found themselves in our garden as ‘leftovers’. When our beloved Dandie Dinmont dog died we chose to commemorate her by planting her ashes under a Macmillan Nurse shrub rose. My husband had cancer, and coincidentally Castle Cary where Ashridge Trees is based is the birthplace of Douglas Macmillan, the founder of the Macmillan Nurses charity.
Do you have a favourite shrub?
I love bringing flowers from the garden into the house and somehow manage to do so all year round. The most forgiving and versatile foliage I’ve used is from a variegated Pittosporum shrub we have. No matter how I hack at it, it keeps coming back and it is evergreen as well.
How did you become interested in gardens?
I was never a particular garden lover as a child. Much of my childhood was spent abroad on army barracks which weren’t famous for gardens. Instead I became interested when I started as Features Editor at Country Life. The then gardens editor used to let me shadow him on trips to gardens for research. I discovered plants had a whole new Latin vocabulary which was double Dutch to me, but I did learn to appreciate the beauty of gardens.
Do you have a favourite garden?
The one I am most sentimental about is Great Dixter, in South East Sussex, the creation of the late and legendary writer Christopher Lloyd who wrote for Country Life magazine for many years and whom we all admired. When one of our colleagues died we all donated money to fund a trainee gardener at Great Dixter each year and this still goes on to this day. “Christo” as we called him was fond of saying : “it is an indisputable fact that appreciation of foliage comes at a later stage in our education, if it comes at all.” My interest came late, and I’ve still to complete my education. That is the beauty of gardening – we are always learning a new skill and in lockdown it has given us a much-need interest and source of light relief beyond Netflix.
What was your most memorable gardening moment at Country Life magazine?
To celebrate the magazine’s Centenary in 1997, we commissioned a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show designed by Rupert Golby. Through that, I was lucky enough to be able to go in and out of the showground regularly and watch the garden being created.
What is your favourite section of a garden?
I’m mad about cooking, and love the relationship between vegetable gardens and the kitchen. The most amazing vegetable garden I’ve ever seen belonged to the food campaigner The Countess of Cranbrook who has a fabulous walled garden in Suffolk and is a huge champion of local food producers. You can’t love food without loving gardens. The RHS ‘Step-By-Step Veg Patch” is the best guide to creating your own. My favourite garden food writers are Nigel Slater and Sarah Raven.
What inspires you in nature?
As a foodie I also adore foraging: in Spring I collect wild garlic which I preserve by mincing with olive oil, salt and garlic and freezing so I can use it all year round. In the autumn I collect elderberries to make an elderberry syrup which is rich in Vitamin C and helps to ward off winter ailments.
What was the last garden you wrote about?
Not long ago I visited the home of Simon King, the British naturalist, cameraman and TV presenter for the Daily Telegraph. It was striking as, just away from a highly urban area, he had created a wildlife haven. The trend for re-wilding gardens is one we can all adopt in tiny ways to benefit flora and fauna. It is amazing to see the difference even a small patch of ‘wilderness’ can make for wildlife.
How do you get rid of garden enemies?
The banes of my life are ground elder, bindweed and honey fungus, none of which I can ever totally eradicate as we are on a seam of all three running across several gardens. I’ve defeated ground elder in one patch by planting comfrey which is equally prolific and more dominant.
Art historian and landscape designer Sir Roy Strong, gave me the most memorable tip for gardens when I’d just bought a new house in the country with a garden: ‘Leave the garden for at least a year,’ he advised. That was so I could see ‘which plants came up over the year’ and ‘where the sun travels’. I moved into my present home 15 years ago this month. It was the best piece of advice anyone gave me as it was astonishing to see how much I had already.