Finally the Dahlia Papers on dahlias

The perfect crimson dahlia ‘Doris Day’, 2017 dahlia trials, Parham, West Sussex

I track down Parham Head Gardener, Tom Brown, in his office where he is carefully stowing away a fat pile of seed packets into a battle-worn filing cabinet.  ‘Melon seeds’ he grins. The seeds have been brought back from Italy by the Barnard family, who live in this beautiful Elizabethan house in West Sussex, and one of the many challenges Tom will be cheerily taking on in the coming months will be to see how successfully he can get these new varieties of melon to grow.

Tom has invited me to Parham to see his 2017 Dahlia Trials. I am delighted to be returning to this atmospheric and constantly inventive garden (see my July 2016 post) and I am thrilled to have the chance at last, after four years of writing a blog called The Dahlia Papers, to consider this most uplifting plant.

I love pretty much everything about the dahlia. I love the sheer ballroom-dance-competition glee of each fluffier, more neatly sequinned variety:

Gorgeous salmon pink and cream dahlia above and Dahlia ‘Karma Yin Yang’ below spotted at the Chelsea Flower Show

And I love the neat pompom and ball dahlias for the impossible regularity of of their daintily sculpted, rounded heads – here in polka dot form at the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair  (7th and 8th October – go if you can!).  

There are single dahlias too, of subtle or dazzling shades, that can lift or add depth to a border over a long period in late summer. Dahlia ‘Poppy Scotland’ is a particularly clear bright red cultivar available as a rooted cutting from the National Dahlia Collection .

                                                                       Dahlia ‘Poppy Scotland’

Dahlias have, of course, become fashionable again in recent times. As has my part of London, Peckham, where exquisitely wrapped English dahlias are available alongside equally exquisite flat breads, pears and cheeses at the lovely General Store in Bellenden Road.

Exquisitely wrapped English dahlias, General Store, Peckham

Naturally, for the 21st birthday party of our twin sons at the beginning of this month, dahlias were the obvious cheerful choice:

Party preparation – rainbow candles, bunting and dahlias

21st birthday party – with dahlias – photo by Freddie Reed

21st birthday party – with dahlias – photo by Freddie Reed

But back to Parham where fifty glorious dahlias have been trialled this summer alongside swathes of gladiolus and a huge patchwork square of zinnias.

 

 

The 2017 dahlia trials at Parham, West Sussex

This is the third year of plant trials in the garden. They began as an ingenious solution to the question: how do you get rid of an infestation of bind weed in a tired border and simultaneously offer something for the visitor to look at? As an experiment, Tom Brown asked his team to see if they could come up with 100 varieties of sunflower. The team cleared the bed and covered the ground with plastic membrane to smother the regrowth, but at the same time  planted the sunflower seeds through small holes in the plastic. The result was a fantastic display and of course the chance to really get to know and compare the sunflowers so that future selections could be based on their own close observation and not just the persuasive description in a seed catalogue. This is gold dust research – for the record, favourites include ‘Alchemy’ , the creamy white ‘Vanilla Ice’ and ‘Munchkin’.

The ‘Munchkin’ sunflower has been a particular favourite of the Parham ‘flower ladies’ who use cut flowers from the garden throughout the spring and summer to create displays for the house. They like the smaller scale of the flower heads and its branching habit is helpful when creating relaxed arrangements. As we pass a particularly exuberant ‘Munchkin’ plant, Tom admits that he is unable to explain what happened to the supposedly ‘dwarf’ characteristic on this one:

An inexplicably tall  ‘Munchkin’ sunflower

In 2016 there was an equally seductive allium trial and for 2017 Tom enlisted the help of dahlia expert Richard Ramsey (of nearby specialist dahlia nursery Withypitts ) to come up with a list of fifty favourite dahlias for the Parham gardeners and visitors alike to get to know better. The dahlias are arranged in long rows, supported with a grid of string, and have been picked continuously so that their vase performance can be tested too.

The sumptuous pink Dahlia ‘Prefet Demange’, Parham dahlia trials

Each of the six Parham gardeners has had their say in the ultimate list of top ten favourites and some tubers  will be immediately reordered for use around the garden next year.

The perky orange and yellow ‘Charlie Dimmock’ has made the top ten and will be used in the about-to-be-revamped Gold Border. Again the flower ladies liked its lightly spreading, smaller flowered form when left to its own devices. To get a larger flower on a long straight stem, the trick with a dahlia is to remove the two side buds and leave the terminal bud to develop into a champion flower.

Dahlia ‘Charlie Dimmock’ – a long stemmed champion flower

Dahlia Charlie Dimmock – left to grow as more relaxed sprays

The substantial semi-cactus Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ has also confirmed its place as an absolute favourite (I particularly love the energy of ‘Black Jack’ as a just opening bud).

Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ – open and in bud

And Dahlia ‘Small World’ – a free flowering crisp white pompom dahlia did not in fact get to the Top Ten (it was pipped tot the post by ‘Snowflake’ but has been selected by one of the gardeners, Reese, to be used next year as a sort of small mounding shrub at the front of the White Border.

Dahlia ‘Small World’

There is a gorgeous, waxy salmon pink dahlia ‘Aljo’ which also made the top ten.

Dahlia ‘Aljo’

And two of my favourites which are looking particularly good on the day I visit (not such a reliable approach, clearly) are featured below: The cheerful, ‘Dutch Carnival with its super neat circles of red and yellow petals and the delicate, almost transparent ‘Brother Josh’.

Dahlia ‘Dutch Carnival’ (above) and ‘Brother Josh’ (below)

The trial bed is buzzing midweek in September with visitors examining and selecting their own preferred blooms.  The next stage, of course – if you are not growing dahlias on their own as cut flowers –  is to work out how to combine them in the border.

Dahlias are always used with exhilarating panache at Great Dixter . Visitors to the Autumn Plant Fair will be able to catch the late autumn garden there in full swing.

I love the sugar pink Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’ here soaring to the sky with a backdrop of arching miscanthus.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’, Great Dixter

In the Barn Garden, the fiery red Dahlia ‘Wittermans superba’ is used with brilliant simplicity against a plain green foil of a fan trained fig. 

Dahlia ‘Witterman’s Superba’ against the magnificent fan trained fig, Barn Garden, Great Dixter

And here a deep pink dahlia – possibly ‘Hillcrest Royal’ – is a rich accent in a celebratory dance of a border with spiky cardoons, the burnt orange Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ and the crazily tall Persicaria orientalist – kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Royal’ adds a deep accent to a border, Great Dixter

One of my favourite Great Dixter combinations is Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ – a single flowered dahlia which is actually a cross with the chocolate scented Cosmos atrosanguineus  – used as a covetable bobbing partner for the rhythmic, deep purple Salvia ‘Amistad’.

Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ with Salvia ‘Amistad’

I cannot leave Parham, of course, without endless other aspects of the garden catching my eye.

The Entrance Border is looking spectacularly bruised and moody.

Entrance Border, Parham

I am smitten by Dicentra scandens – a pale yellow, climbing bleeding heart I have not met before that lightly clambers over and through the bed which Tom assures me can be grown as an annual if planted in June.

Dicentra scandens clambering over sedum in the Entrance Border, Parham

I like the subtle combination of both pale pink and coral pink persicaria with feathery calamagrostis:

Persicaria amplixicaulis ‘Rosea’ and ‘Firetail’ with feathery calamagrostis, Entrance Border, Parham

There is a slightly more silvery version of this palette in the Prairie Border. I love the use of pale yellow Bidens heterophylla to lighten the mood and the way the silky tassels of miscanthus and the dull pink of Eupatoreum work so well with the mottled brick of the wall behind them.

The Prairie Border, Parham with pale yellow widens lighting up the border

There are simple, strong effects such as this stand of white Japanese anemone against an open garden gate

Japanese anemone against garden gate, Parham

And the zinnia trials introduce me to the delicious antique looking  ‘Queen Red Lime’ (which did indeed make the Parham 2017 top ten):

Zinnia elegans ‘Queen Red Lime’

Of the many exciting projects at Parham, I am particularly intrigued by a new planting of lilac and Iris sibirica .

New planting of Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ and Iris sibirica

Landscape designer,  Todd Longstaffe-Gowan comes to Parham a couple of times a year to act as an advisor and sounding board. A plan was developed to do away with a tired looking lavender cross and fill the space with romantic and traditional lilac shrubs emerging from pools of slender Iris sibirica. The gorgeous ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ was selected for the lilac: Ashridge Trees describes it as is a scented, double flowered lilac with ‘an elusive colour that ranges from lavender pink to mauvey blue depending on the time of day and  the intensity of the light’.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’

100 each of 12 different cultivars of Iris sibirica were planted, as a sort of fast track on-the-job  trial. ln fact Iris sibirica ‘Silver edge’ is already outstripping its neighbours as ‘by far the best blue’. This part of the garden is looking young and quiet at the moment and Tom and his team are making sure that the iris are given a couple of years of pampering, removing any competing grass and mulching generously to get them established. I can imagine a visit in late May in a year or two’s time when the groups of iris with their fine mauve-blue flowers and slim sword shaped leaves form a wonderful graceful understory to the clouds of lilac in full flower.

Iris sibirica ‘Katherine Havemeyer’

A quick peak into one of the new glasshouses reveals that Tom has, despite his initial modesty, already succeeded in growing some perfect specimens of melon. The glass house is heady with their scent and I feel very stupid not to have known before that melons are supported in string bags.

Melons in the glass house at Parham

My contribution is to recommend the passionate Amy Goldman’s book on melons  (I have written about Amy Goldman in my post A Gardener’s Letter to Paris ).

As I am leaving Parham a magnificent stone trough catches my eye. Airy rich yellow bidens, scarlet salvia and gorgeous trails of the purple bell vine, Rhodochiton atrosanguineus. The planting is one hundred percent Parham: exuberant, delicate and slightly unexpected. Thank you Tom for another inspiring visit.

Stone trough with widens, salvia and purple bell vine, Parham, West Sussex

 

PLAS-YN-RHIW: A HEAVENLY ACRE OF ‘BLOSSOMING JUNGLE’ SLOPING TO THE SEA


LOSING MY HEART ON THE LLŶN PENINSULA

Lush woodland path, Plas-yn-Rhiw estate

It has already been a frantic summer with non-stop gatherings and celebratory toasts. It is the end of school for our youngest son (and the end of an era for us),  our twins have turned 21 and there has been the happiest Gloucestershire wedding – my sister to the learned doctor – who took time out from his gruelling hospital shifts to bake these tiny wedding cakes:

Tiny wedding cakes from my sister’s wedding to the learned doctor

Not surprisingly I am in a somewhat fragile state by the time I find myself on a radiant July evening sitting on a remote grassy slope at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula – known by some as Snowdon’s Arm – in North West Wales.  Accompanied as I am by marvellous and ever patient husband, Nick, I am ready for a little romance myself.

Just stopping for a while to take in the quiet and the view of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth), Llŷn Peninsula

The garden we have come to see, Plas-yn-Rhiw, has closed for the day moments before we arrive. But although this is frustrating, there is something very sweet – when you are very tired – about converting to a simpler agenda, just raising your face to the evening sunshine and taking in the blue curve of the bay below.

The next morning is heavy with an almost tropical grey sky:

Almost tropical grey sky with view across Hell’s Mouth

But I am excited by the lushness of the ferns in the surrounding woodland  –  I have never seen hart’s tongue fern ( Asplenium scolopendrium) with such long, exuberant fingers – and, by the house entrance, the crocosmia glows neon orange in the eleven o’clock gloom.

Lush ferns – extra-exuberant hart’s tongue ferns below

Crocosmia glow neon-orange in the morning gloom

Plas-yn-Rhiw is a small 17th Century stone manor house built onto a hillside ledge with wonderful views of the sea, entirely surrounded and protected by woodland. In 1816  the house was extended and elegantly glamorised. The roof was raised to add an extra floor, french windows leading onto the garden were cut into the sturdy walls and a slim-limbed Regency veranda was constructed along the facade. But having remained in one family for nearly three hundred years, the house was sold in 1874 and then abandoned in 1922 by the son who inherited it and left to decay.

The rarity of the house and the exquisite nature of its position was noted by the architect  Clough Williams-Ellis who designed the Italianate coastal village of Portmerion (about 50 miles away) and whose own imaginative and stylish garden at nearby  Plas Brondanw is absolutely worth visiting.

Williams-Ellis had tried to get a friend to buy it in the early twenties and wrote passionately about the property as an important example of Welsh rural architecture that needed saving. “To those sailing bleakly across Hell’s Mouth bound may be for the last hospitality of Aberdaron or northwards around North Wales’ land’s end through Bardsey Sound – there is just one spot where the eye may gratefully rest on relative ‘snugness’ and that is where the wooded policies of Plas-yn-Rhiw meet the sea in a little bay. Here, sheltered by the shoulder of its protecting mountain from the tempestuous west, crouches an ancient manor house …its French windows and verandah look out across the wide expanse of Cardigan Bay between its trees and over fuchsias, figs, rhododendrons and azaleas that here flourish so famously that, when I first reconnoitred the (abandoned) place some twenty years ago… the house was buried in a blossoming jungle which also obscured all view of the sea as well as most of the sunlight”.

But, it was in the end three unmarried sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating, who, having holidayed on the Llŷn Peninsula since 1919, managed to buy the house and a reduced estate of 58 acres in 1939.

Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating with thanks to the National Trust Plas-Yn-Rhiw website

There are stories of the garden being so overgrown that the women had to clamber in through a first floor window to view the house. Once it was theirs, the sisters set about restoring the building (a slow process during wartime especially), creating a wonderfully deft and welcoming garden and caring for the surrounding land.

The green and welcoming garden at Plas-yn-Rhiw

As time went by they bought up every available parcel until they had restored the estate to about 400 acres so that it could be protected from development and conserved for wildlife.  They donated the land to the National Trust in 1946 and donated the house itself in 1952.  The youngest sister, Lorna, lived in the house until she died in 1981, but the sisters had opened the house to the public long before. During the restoration process they were keen to unveil the original stonework and the house is filled with (covetable!) old Welsh oak furniture. It looks as if the sisters have just popped out –  there is a fur jacket hanging behind a door, a bottle of lavender scent on the dressing table and a small but serious office where business was clearly attended to with wisdom and thoroughness.

Best of all there are brilliant views – and indeed doors – out of the rooms to the garden. Seeing the garden through the French windows of the main living rooms feels comfortable and completely modern, but every glimpse is tantalising, not least from this small kitchen window out to the ruined and romantically planted outbuildings:

View to ruined outbuildings, Plas-yn-Rhiw

The Keating sisters restored some of the early 19th century outbuildings – there had been stables, a dairy, a threshing shed, coach house and a stone dog kennel – but also, with almost visionary grace, they left many of the buildings as ruins, there to enjoy for the contrast of stone form against living green. There are archways and rough hewn walls brilliantly energised with voluptuous green ferns and the tiny creeping soleirolia soleirolii (the super invasive ‘baby’s tears’) becomes a delicious verdant foil for the handsome cobbles of the courtyard floor.

The handsome cobbled courtyard and ruined outbuildings energised with green

Soleirolia soleirolii weaving its way between rhythmical courtyard cobbles

As always in this kind of mild, watery, West coast terrain, I love the way that green starfishes of Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) dart across the walls.

Maidenhair spleenwort – Asplenium trichomanes growing happily on the stone walls

There is running water mirrored by prostrate rosemary flowing almost endlessly to the ground.

Prostrate rosemary flowing down the wall like water, Plas-yn-Rhiw

And there are magical views through glassless window openings:

Here the upright forms of Pennywort stand like candles in the window, Plas-yn-Rhiw

There is so much luxuriant green. The ferns that line the walls of The Gardener’s Cottage (which is in the middle of the garden – you can rent it for a holiday from the National Trust see the Plas-yn-Rhiw website) are as big as a medium-sized shrub.

The ferns that line the wall of The Gardener’s Cottage are shrub size

Gentle corridors of dynamic ferns make way for healthy, bulging corridors of deep green box:

Ferns and box line the paths at Plas-yn-Rhiw

A home-made, age-old sort of layering makes walking through the garden a deeply charming experience:

Bulging, layered box hedging surrounds the Kitchen Garden

An apple tree leans into position against cushioning box hedges

The occasional steely mauve of acanthus, pale pink hydrangea and velvety blue of aconitum sing out against the contented sea of green:

Every so often steely mauve acanthus, pale pink hydrangea and rich blue aconitum sing out against the waves of green.

At the top of a box-lined path, a former outbuilding has become an inviting chalky white place to sit:

An inviting loggia has been created from an empty outbuilding

At the front of the garden, cheerily uneven compartments of box hold fiery red crocosmia, steely acanthus and royal blue agapanthus against the milky grey sky and matching sea.

Cheerily uneven compartments of box hold acanthus, crocosmia and agapanthus against the milky sky and matching sea

Finally, round to the elegantly groomed front of the house with its veranda and scalloped beds filled with delicate heads of nicotiana and fuchsia:

The front of the house with Regency veranda. The Gardener’s Cottage is at right-angles

In a corner a Hydrangea aspera in bud falls elegantly over a stone trough. The acanthus to its left and purple sage at its feet share the same silvery-purple tones. You get a glimpse here too of the towering trees that rise above the lower level planting. I failed to photograph these but there are gorgeous, lushly growing specimens of magnolia and bay amongst other often slightly unlikely species, many donated to the Keating sisters from other National Trust gardens at their request  when they were first renovating the garden and needed anything they could get hold of to fill the space.

Hydrangea aspera falls elegantly over a stone trough.  Acanthus mollis and Salvia officinalis    ‘Purpurascens’ are excellent companions

I am completely smitten by both house and garden at Plas-yn-Rhiw. The chance to sit on an old stone bench and relish the green and the spreading view and the occasional electric dash of orange or palest pink. I love the plump, guiding corridors of box and – everywhere – the energy of the ferns.

An old stone bench, Plas-yn-Rhiw

Throughout the garden old stone walls are an enticingly rough contrast to jewel coloured fuchsias, bright orange crocosmia and, under the elegant Regency veranda, this deep raspberry abutilon which twines its way along the front of the house.  A hard place to leave.

Abutilon against the stone facade of Plas-yn-Rhiw

 

 

WOOLBEDING – A SERIOUSLY GOOD GARDEN FOR SERIOUS TIMES

FAMOUSLY CELEBRATED AS THE LOVELIEST VALLEY IN SUSSEX

Just colouring Eryngium (sea holly) by the pool, Mary’s Garden, Woolbeding

It is the day after the General Election. The sky is gloomy, the nation surprised and jittery. And I am full of uncertainty too as I drive doggedly down to Woolbeding Gardens in Sussex. I am going because it is June, because it is in my diary, because I had been planning an uplifting midsummer day out to this fine English garden.

As soon as I enter the entrance courtyard – named Mary’s Garden after the wife of a former Head Gardener – I become absorbed by the calming deftness and welcoming generosity of this walled haven and my mood softens.

Mary’s Garden, Woolbeding, with its interlocking pools and generous planting

Mary’s Garden was designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman who were asked to convert a sloping farmyard into a gentle and beguiling new entrance before the garden opened to National Trust visitors in 2011. The house and garden had been lovingly restored and enhanced by Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw ever since they had taken on the lease from the National Trust in 1972. When Simon Sainsbury died, Stewart Grimshaw decided to open the garden to visitors for the first time and the Bannerman’s, who had already worked extensively on one part of the garden, were ‘touched’ by the commission from their friend and client who seemed determined that everything at Woolbeding should continue with ‘if possible heightened standards’.

The Bannerman’s approached the commission with characteristic gusto ‘our proposal has a great picture of (the landscape architect) Sylvia Crowe standing by a pair of concrete ‘coffee tables’ filled with water’ writes Isabel Bannerman in a wonderful book on the garden ‘The Loveliest Valley’ with photographs by Tessa Traeger. But as time went by ‘something a bit more Sussex farmyard’ was opted for. The pools are a surprisingly low key presence. They successfully settle the sloping garden into easy levels, the blue-green water offers quietly hovering reflections, but mostly they seem to be there as a wonderful backdrop for the gorgeous waves of colour in the soft and exuberant planting that weaves itself through the space. Isabel Bannerman is keen to stress that it is Stewart Grimshaw’s own ‘wandy planting’ – Stewart Grimshaw is Kew trained and his unstoppable passion for plants permeates the whole of Woolbeding – but, whoever is responsible, it is a celebratory approach.

I love the cool pink whorls of the Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ next to the fluffy, almost salmon pink Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Pink Tanna’ with the pale blue of Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia dancing up between them:

Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Pink Tanna’ and Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia

And elsewhere the clear violet-blue pea flower of Baptisia australis contrasts wonderfully with  its subtle cross-hatched backdrop of variegated miscanthus and silvery sea holly.

Baptisia australis with variegated miscanthus behind and sea holly in front

Arching faded burgundy grass heads sing out against the wonderful low mounds of acid yellow Euphorbia which add a happy energy to the scene.

 Arching stems of a faded burgundy grass heads against acid yellow Euphorbia cyparissias

Euphorbia cyparissias lighting up the scene

The particularly finely cut form of sea holly – possibly Eryngium x zabellii ‘Big Blue’? – is planted in generous stretches and works brilliantly both as a structural plant to line paths and in combination with other plants.

Here it is lining the path at the entrance gate:

And here it is punctuated with the intriguing uprights of a narrow, dusky form of the katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonica ‘Rotfuchs’ which has grey-blue leaves which turn to dark claret:

The path is lined with eryngium, punctuated with the dark claret upright form of Cercidiphyllym japonica ‘Rotfuchs’.

Leaves of Cercidiphyllum japonica ‘Rotfuchs’

It looks wonderful in combination with the incredibly long lasting perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. As ever, a reminder never to ignore well known plants which offer such fantastic value …

Sea holly with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’

The planting is perfectly anchored by a small battalion of tightly clipped yew domes.

Clipped yew domes anchor the planting

These work equally well with lower mounds of the pale eau de nil grass Sesleria nitida and with the soft pinky mauve spikes of Salvia nemerosa ‘Amethyst’.

Clipped yew domes with Sesleria nitida

Clipped yew with Salvia nemerosa ‘Amethyst’ and sea holly

And just as you think you have the measure of what is going on there is a sophisticated switch of palette.

In the upper corner a pretty cedar tiled bird table hovers above a lush planting of Bowles’ Golden Grass (Millium effusum ‘Aureum’). The entire area is suddenly just shades of green and yellow with sweet pockets of plants such as the pale yellow Phygelius aequalius ‘Yellow Trumpet’ energising the scene.

A bird table hovers above Bowles’ Golden Grass – Phygelius aequalius ‘Yellow Trumpet’ in the bottom right corner

In the opposite corner a spreading cornus tree covered in creamy flower bracts – I wonder if it is the semi evergreen Cornus capitata? – nestles comfortably against the wall:

Possibly Cornus capitata with its pretty creamy flower bracts

And in front of the cornus tree, the pointy flower buds of the perennial allium ‘Babington’s Leek’ soar against the sky on their ridiculously long stems.‘Babington’s Leek’ flower buds against the sky

I love the way a sudden spreading mound of a single wiry curry plant – Helichrysum italicum – is allowed to do its silver-white, peppery-scented thing against a corner of the upper pool.

A spreading mound of Helichrysum italicum

And I love the way the palette turns again to pinks and mauves amongst the pair of ancient olive trees in stone pots – the delicate spires of Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’ are the stars of this particular show.

Linarea purpurea ‘Canon Went’

Back in the lower part of the garden I notice that double hedges – two sides of stilted lime hedge against a ground of solid green hornbeam hedge – add to the feeling of comfortable shelter. This is a garden that has been meticulously and imaginatively envisaged, perfectly planted and is immaculately cared for. I happen to be meeting Isabel and Julian Bannerman a few days later and they tell me how much they enjoyed the project. ‘It was fun doing a more modern garden’ muses Julian ‘it was hard’ – finding a task difficult often leads to the most satisfactory solutions.

I suddenly realise that it is 7pm on a Friday night. Two weeks have passed, full of much horror and sadness. On a sweeter domestic level, our son’s A level exams are finally over so there is that disbelieving feeling in the house of a 17 year old with a gap year ahead of him, released from life in front of an electric fan with a bowl of cereal and a sheaf of essay plans for company.

And I am looking at my photographs of this extraordinary and extensive garden and wanting to show them to you, but panicking about the time. And so I will shortchange you, if I may, and give you a whistle stop tour – if only to tempt you to visit Woolbeding and go see for yourself.

The yew topiary everywhere in the garden is plump and inviting: Yew topiary at Woolbeding

There are criss cross belgian fence trained apple trees framing the Herb Garden and Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ against mottled brick walls.

Belgian fence apple trees

Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’

Much of the garden was laid out in the 70’s by American landscape architect Lanning Roper with buildings designed and enhanced by Philip Jebb.  There is a wonderful swimming pool and Philip Jeb pavilion  which reminds me, with its atmosphere of comfortable international glamour, of the garden of the American Ambassador to the UK, Winfield House :

Hedge and rose enclosed swimming pool and pavilion, Woolbeding

There is more  tantalising topiary leading you on:

topiary, Woolbeding

And then in the Fountain Garden there is this fantastic combination of pale lilac delphinium, palest pink geranium and variegated box against darkest green yew:

Pale delphiniums and geraniums and variegated box topiary against yew

The Fountain Garden is full of rich colour including a wonderful orange rose which climbs up skywards and little groups of Viola ‘Bowles’ Black’ planted in cracks in the paving.

 

 

 

Rich colour in the fountain garden

There is a a heavenly croquet lawn:

The croquet lawn, Woolbeding

A sudden discovery of drystone walled terraces with irises and blue benches for contemplation:

Iris terraces, Woolbeding

A gnarled hornbeam tunnel with a bench to sit on as you gaze at the River Rother below:

Hornbeam tunnel, Woolbeding

And a heart-stopping oriental plane tree, with incredible spreading branches, which lower themselves down onto a sea of cow parsley and campanula.

The oriental plane tree with urn and stone seat, Woolbeding

I cannot do justice to the Long Walk which is where Isabel and Julian Bannerman were invited to  ‘lift’ an area of the garden which is indeed a good walk away from the oriental plane tree. Here there was already a Philip Jebb Summer House overlooking the river, but the Bannerman’s added theatrical ruins, a beautiful pale yellow Chinese Bridge, completely reorganised the water, installed a magnificent (completely fictional) Rother God made of stone and oyster shells from Whitstable and added really exhilarating planting to lure you up and around. It is an exquisitely detailed and exciting place.

Romantic ruins, The Long Walk

The yellow Chinese Bridge

Philip Jebb’s summer house with electric green planting leading you towards it.

The magnificent Rother God

Interior of the Philip Jeb summer house

The Cascade and detail of ammonites and ferns

I will leave you to book your ticket – the garden is only open on Thursdays and Fridays and places must be reserved in advance. Visitor numbers are limited to about 200 a day so it is never particularly full and, although there is a small cafe, visitors are encouraged to bring picnics and take themselves off to a quiet corner.

In this strange and choppy time, when so many plans have been stopped in their tracks, it is reassuring  to reflect on the way a deep reverence for a sense of place – as well as admittedly encouragingly deep pockets – have brought about such a beautifully nurtured place.  Allow yourself a great day out and go to Woolbeding. Feast your eyes, lie on the grass near the oriental plane tree and take time to look up at the sky.

 

 

THE SWEET INTENSITY OF SHAKESPEARE’S GARDENS

INTOXICATING SPRING GARDENS FROM STRATFORD-UPON-AVON TO SOUTH LONDON  

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage Garden – a sculptural philadelphus ‘tree’, a sweet-scented riot of tulips and new perennial foliage

Charles Rutherfoord’s headily fragrant South London garden – a sculptural laburnum tree, a border of stepover apples and brilliantly coloured tulips

I have badly wanted to visit the houses and gardens of Stratford-upon-Avon since reading Frank Lawley’s inspirational book on the making of his exquisite Northumberland garden, Herterton (see my October 2015 blog post).

For Frank and his wife Marjorie, the gardens at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage  and Mary Arden’s Farm triggered an understanding, a recognition even, that a relaxed, abundant style of planting, anchored by architectural trees and shrubs, was just the kind of intimate, uplifting garden they wanted to create. (Anne Hathaway became Shakespeare’s wife, and Mary Arden was his mother).

‘Perhaps our greatest discovery was in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was not the river nor the theatre but the entrancing group of places belonging to the  Shakespeare Birthplace Trust . Following signs through the suburban edges of the town, dodging traffic, a long stretch of clipped hawthorn hedge … confronted us. Along the pavement beside it, a crocodile of Japanese visitors was approaching this English shrine that is Anne Hathaway’s Cottage … the garden planting was unsophisticated: here were the daisies, thrift and pinks we knew.  The house border had clipped yews and ivy and the profuse white rose, Rosa alba.  

And three miles away another long old farm, Mary Arden’s House, stood closely beside its lane. Just inside its low wall, warmly furnished with red valerian, there was just space for a very organic thin parterre. The box was well cut, but it had long forgotten any concept of horizontal tops and matching vertical sides. It bulged and spread, denying any entry by path. An odd delphinium was trapped inside. The very narrow house border had topiaries shrubs, this time with clouds of the old pink and purple ‘everlasting’ sweet pea.’

Herterton House Garden – bulging hedges and tousled planting

At last, dreaming of bulging hedges and tousled native flowers, I head off to Stratford at the end of April. It is a bit of a jolt to arrive at Shakespeare’s New Place and be greeted by immaculate stretches of hard landscaping, a glittering ‘Tempest’ themed galleon, and shiny bronze raised beds with primary coloured pennants representing all thirty-eight of Shakespeare’s plays.

       The Golden Garden, Shakespeare’s New Place, with pennants representing Shakespeare’s                                                           thirty-eight plays

But this is just the beginning. I am nearly down with one blow at the sight of the monumental bronze tree ‘bent under the force of Shakespeare’s power of imagination’, with its tortured branches hovering over a potent looking ‘celestial sphere’.

The bronze tree ‘bent under the force of Shakespeare’s imagination’

But then I listen more attentively to the historian from the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and realise that I have made the same mistake as many visitors. Shakespeare’s New Place is the site of the extensive house and grounds Shakespeare bought for his family and lived in from 1597 until his death in 1616, but the house itself no longer exists. The building we take to be Shakespeare’s house is in fact Nash’s House, the home of Thomas Nash who married Shakespeare’s granddaughter. New Place was, rather astoundingly, demolished by a Rev. Francis Gastrell who, on buying the house in 1753, became so infuriated by visitors asking to see the mulberry tree reputed to be planted by the bard that he cut the tree down in 1758 and knocked the house down the following year, much to the fury of locals and worldwide admirers alike.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was established in 1847, following a campaign with vigorous support from luminaries such as Charles Dickens, to save Shakespeare’s home for the nation and is now custodian of an enormous world class collection and archive. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death the garden at New Place has been given a substantial and – despite my initial sense of surprise – deeply thoughtful overhaul. Archeological investigations have established  for the first time the footprint of Shakespeare’s house and outbuildings and these are discreetly marked out in elegantly engraved bronze strips. Every element is a tool for story telling to make the past come alive. I loved discovering that the feisty Anne Hathaway ran her own successful malting business from buildings in what is now the Great Garden.

Engraved bronze strips embedded in the paving mark the footprint of Shakespeare’s house, barns and outbuildings

A circle of pleached English Hornbeam marks the position of the house, offering a fitting structure and the feeling of shelter for a set of magnificent curved oak benches – space to sit for some of the 825,000 visitors each year to the Trust’s properties. The benches were made with the help of local students by Warwickshire cabinet maker Armando Magnino.

A circle of pleached hornbeam offers structure and shelter to a set of magnificent locally made curved oak benches

Glyn Jones – whose immaculate pedigree includes working alongside Penelope Hobhouse at the seventeenth century Tintinhull and many years as Head Gardener at Hidcote – has been appointed as Head of Gardens. He has five Stratford Gardens in his care: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, New Place, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Mary Arden’s Farm and Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah, and her husband Dr John Hall which is to have a newly designed physic garden. He admits that the gardens have become a little too uniform over the years and he has plans to develop their individuality and to encourage creativity and experimentation.

Wisteria against the soft red brick walls of Nash House

Despite the demanding scale of his brief, you cannot fail to have faith in a man who looks with fatherly tenderness at the imposing elegance of the pleached hornbeam and describes his relief that each tree has come happily into leaf this spring as they were seed grown and as such there were ‘no guarantees’. He offers a similar almost wistful concern for the long established mauve wisteria trained in a happy tangle against the soft red brick of Nash’s House.  ‘That’s Chinese Wisteria,  Wisteria sinensis.  Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) would have been a better choice – it is more fragrant and comes into flower later and so is less likely to be hit by frost’.

For me, the New Place garden gets really interesting in the next section where a newly renovated Sunken Knot Garden lures the visitor on with its subtle order and soft tapestry of santolina, hyssop, thyme, standard roses and dusky Tulip ‘Queen of Night’.

The Sunken Knot Garden at Shakespeare’s New Place

Paths have been unobtrusively widened for full disability access and the original arched ‘bower’ which runs down one side – a sort of rounded pergola – has been lovingly rebuilt in oak and the old crab apples (some 100 years old) carefully repositioned over their new frame.

The fine new oak Bower with openings for benches from which to look onto the Knot Garden

The walls and fences on the other three sides of the Knot Garden are clothed, as befits the archetypal knot garden, in productive plants and every detail is beautifully arranged. I love the way the spreading wall-trained fig is lushly underplanted with a simple combination of silvery-blue iris and inky tulips.

The Knot Garden wall clothed in a fan trained fig underplanted with iris and tulips

Euonymous japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ has been used with great success instead of box to mark out the shapes and edges of the knot garden. ‘It is not as tight as box’ admits Glyn ‘but it looks very good’. Garden designers have become reluctant to specify box for new gardens because of the blight which has ravaged so many European and now New Zealand and US gardens, and long established gardens such as Sissinghurst are growing stocks of this kind of Euonymous as a back up should the worst happen. However, the cheerful neatness of this ‘Green Rocket’ encourages me to suggest a knot garden – or at least formal evergreen edging – the next time an opportunity arises.

Euonymous japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ (with thyme above) providing a smart bright green edging to the Sunken Knot Garden, New Place

As I am mulling over elaborate possibilities for creating my own intricate Elizabethan knot garden, I have the rug pulled again from under my feet when I learn that the original Sunken Knot Garden at New Place was only installed in 1922. It is clear that Shakespeare was familiar with knot gardens – there is a ‘curious knotted garden’ in Love’s Labours Lost and in Richard II the whole of England is described as a garden in a state of neglect: ‘the whole land/Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up/Her fruit trees all unpruned, /Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs/ Swarming with caterpillars’…  But it was an eminent Edwardian garden historian, Ernest Law who set about designing ‘a sunken parterre’ for New Place, convinced that the addition of a historically accurate garden of the kind  Shakespeare would have known would be an important and illuminating addition. The Trust has in its collection an original copy of Thomas Hill’s ‘The Gardener’s Labyrinth’, regarded as the first English gardening book, which has detailed guidance and templates for the shapes of knot gardens Law could have used. But, as Roy Strong sets out in his 2016 book ‘The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden’ (which I have to tell you, includes a well observed and very funny chapter on Lucia’s ‘Shakespeare’s Garden in E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia), Ernest Law was  ambitious for something special.  As well as drawing inspiration for ‘balustrades of Warwickshire elm’ and a  ‘dwarf wall, of old fashioned bricks – hand-made, sun-dried, sand-finished’ from Thomas Hill’s work, he sourced his four knot designs from ‘Mountaine’, ‘Gervase Markham’s ‘Country Housewife Garden’ (1613) and William Lawson’s ‘New Orchard and Garden (1618). Donations for the Knot Garden included plants from major UK botanic gardens plus four standard roses from different members of the Royal Family to stand at the centre of each square. The garden is notable as the first attempt at recreating a historic garden and opened the door to Garden History as a rich and revelatory subject.

An illustration from Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth showing a hand pump for watering

Roy Strong’s ‘The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden’ published for the 400th year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

Finally to the Great Garden – an acre and a half of lawn, spreading mulberry trees (more stories – for another time perhaps) and 295 feet of tremendous bulging yew hedges!

Tremendous bulging yew hedges and buttresses at New Place

Unsurprisingly perhaps, these hedges are another test for the lens through which we view historic gardens. Despite the great age suggested by the uneven, spreading bulk of these glorious stretches of yew, with their substantial buttresses marking out broad beds for herbaceous plants, they were in fact only planted in the 1920’s, and the shape of the borders was developed with advice from the great Edwardian plantswoman Ellen Willmott. The hedges were also crucial in Ernest Law’s eyes to hide the formal  Victorian cast iron railings that ran the length of the garden and were doing nothing to help bring a Tudor garden to life. Head of Gardens, Glyn Jones eyes up the hedges and explains that they would have first lost their crisp, ordered shape during the Second World War when the gardeners went off to fight. He wonders for a moment (with a Hidcotian glint in his eye?) if the correct thing to do would be to restore them to their original 1920’s proportions. Horror! For me – and clearly for the rest of the group – the hedges as they are now are a key pleasure of New Place and help the gardens feel anchored and settled despite the great bustle that goes on all around them.

The garden is suddenly flooded by a group of French school children. I smile at the proprietorial way a girl stands before the hedge they call ‘The Elephant’ to photograph her friends in the cave-like inside. The garden – with its fine hedges – is robust enough to take it.

The garden is suddenly flooded by school children

Taking a photograph of The Elephant

It is a twenty minute walk from New Place to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery.  In Shakespeare’s time Shottery was a separate hamlet to which the young eighteen year old would head (Macron-style) to woo Anne who was twenty six. But now it is situated just at the edge of town. You follow a path up to the Cottage with a just- seen Shottery Brook on your left screened by a rather beautiful, unashamedly Ophelia-resonant, living willow fence.
                                      The living willow fence which screens Shottery Brook

It feels rather surreal to be finally arriving at such an iconic place, not least as I realise again that the thing to grasp is the complex layering of time. What we are about to see is a house that would have stood in Shakespeare’s day and a garden that is our 21st Century interpretation of a late Victorian/Edwardian notion of a cottage garden. A more natural look and a celebration of simple native plants had been made popular by the persuasive words of William Robinson in books such as ‘The English Flower Garden’ (1883) and so, when drainage improvements were made to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the early 1920’s, Ellen Willmott was asked to redesign the garden. You are likely to have heard of ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ – the silvery sea holly (Eryngium giganteum) named for the imposing plantswoman’s supposed habit of scattering seeds secretly in other peoples’ gardens. How stories turn into other stories: I was rather taken aback to see the entry for Eryngium giganteum on the Chiltern Seed website with the advice that as it is a ghostly coloured plant  ‘grow it and scare your friends!’ …                                             Eryngium giganticum – Miss Willmott’s Ghost

The approach to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Glyn Jones has many plans afoot to invigorate and further sweeten the garden at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. His first idea is to slow down the visitor’s arrival so that instead of seeing the house straight away over the garden hedge, they approach it more slowly – and more romantically – through the orchard. He and his team are already hard at work trying to relax the orchard – the grass has been over-fertilised and needs to be stripped of nutrients and sown with yellow rattle to achieve the mown-paths-through-long-grass look that is as desirable today as it was a hundred years ago. He is letting the surrounding hedges grow loose for the next three years with a view to laying them properly when there is enough new growth.

The Orchard in the grounds of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

There is already a successful programme of vegetable growing using varieties that would have been available in Edwardian times. Nestling into the low hawthorn hedges, they help anchor the cottage in a timeless seasonal pattern.

Traditional vegetables at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

When our group is finally standing before the perfectly thatched cottage with its three broad borders of jewel-coloured tulips emerging from the luxuriant new foliage of herbaceous perennials,  it has just stopped raining and we are all grinning from ear to ear to be amongst this sea of fresh and fragrant colour. Glyn Jones tells us that his team has been taking cuttings from the now tree-like Philadelphus (mock orange) by Ellen Willmott near the house and how they will be echoing her method of blending the ornamental into the wild. She used to plant ornamental shrubs into the hedgerows, at first one shrub every few yards and, as you got further from the house, perhaps one shrub every twenty yards, so that the transition was barely noticeable.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage borders filled with tulips, a tree like Philadelphus now almost as tall as the house

He explains how the Willmott-designed borders are going to be meticulously cleared and replanted one at a time:

The first of three borders lying fallow as it is cleared of weeds before replanting

Glyn wraps up by airing his worry about the tulips: surely they are too much of a muddle, not of the period, too garish? …. There is an outcry!

The riot of tulips and fresh foliage in one of the borders in front of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

My group all love the technicolour buzz of the place and cannot bear the idea of a filter of perfect taste being applied to future plantings.  But caring for this kind of iconic garden, considering what might be historically accurate, respecting the input of other passionate gardeners over the years and leaving room for some contemporary creativity is a demanding balancing act .  I will definitely be back to see the gardens as they are guided into the future by such a fine and thoughtful gardener.

The borders at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage remind me – almost uncannily – of the wonderfully intense garden I have just visited in London.

Charles Rutherfoord’s Garden – an exhilarating, scented kaleidoscope of tulips and step-over apple trees.

Charles Rutherfoord’s and Rupert Tyler’s Clapham garden had an almost identical, giddying impact on the 250 or so  NGS visitors on a late April afternoon. In a private garden, of course, a sense of excitement of entering a different world can be created and enjoyed with utter freedom. I love the way that Charles and Rupert just go for it. This is a celebratory garden where thousands of tulips, voluptuous tree peonies and velvety iris blaze away with abandonment at the back of their sleekly elegant house. The peonies alone make you want to hit the Kelways website to order the voluptuous, rich pink Japanese tree peony ‘Cardinal Vaughan’ as soon as you get home.

Paeonia ‘Cardinal Vaughan’ amongst tulips and irises

I am riveted to discover that – as well as the glowing pink tulip ‘Mariette’ which Charles has planted for the first time and the dark foil of tulip ‘Queen of Night’ – the red and yellow flamed tulips which light up the display are in fact tulips which have just emerged this way – older tulips with a virus. ‘It’s so exciting. Last year there were one or two, now the whole space is filled with them’.

This is a garden that is gardened intuitively by a passionate and knowledgeable plantsman. ‘I only really think about the garden when I am working in it. I move plants around and put them where they feel right. He does not remember consciously arranging the three groups of rich purple iris, but enjoys the fact that they have found perfect places –  two clumps flanking the step-over apple border to the tulip bed and a third clump in a slightly different part of the garden, serving as a comfortable echo.

Paths to take you round the garden are developed in a similar hands-on, organic way with a section of sun-warmed path made from raised sleepers forming a central axis under the yellow glow of a laburnum tree, a handsome path of stone and brick flanked by the stepover apples and mounds of rosemary and new curving path of reclaimed yellow brick lighting up a shady tunnel under the weeping branches of Acacia pravissima.

Hand built paths of railway sleeper, stone and brick paths flanked by apple trees and rosemary  and a curved brick path through a shadier part of the garden

I love the contrast of the painterly feel of the garden with the restrained perfection of the house interior and the way that the garden fills the windows with such generosity.

Painterly view from the top floor of the house – the sculptural, weeping branches of Acacia pravissima in the foreground. The grey leaved tree behind it is Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’The rear of the garden with a delightful tapestry of Cercis canadensis, Cotinus ‘Grace’ and more flamed tulips

The immaculate, elegant interior of Charles Rutherfoord and Robert Tyler’s house with views through to the abundant garden. House & Garden May 2017 edition, photographs by Michael Sinclair

Euphorbia mellifera is used wonderfully throughout the garden as a relaxed, deliciously honey-scented architectural plant – here with its bronze flowers providing delightful contrast to the ceanothus and borrowed wisteria behind:

And here with the canopy of large specimens lifted so that you can walk underneath and enjoy the light shining through:

There are mounds of acanthus and huge-leaved rosettes of Echium pininana all over the garden which will provide soaring structure later in the season. And everywhere, there is the refreshing use of yellow!  An inherited laburnum tree has been flat-topped so as not to restrict the view from the house and has become is a sunny, sculptural presence at the heart of the garden.

The flat topped Laburnum tree at the heart of the garden

The laburnum lights up the comparatively austere back of the house – and its flat top provides a cheerful tiered staging effect for the theatrical row of dancing tulips on the balcony above.

Laburnum and dancing tulips against the house

Mounds of deliciously scented, paler yellow Coranilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ flank the sleeper path. This is my new favourite must-have plant (after the tree peonies) for its structure as well as its early colour and fragrance:

                       Coranilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ flank the sleeper path (with an already surging echium front right)

And in delightful, shadier spaces, the curving stems and rich yellow lantern-like bells of Brugmansia suaveolens (Angel’s Trumpets) light up the shadows:

Brugmansia suaveolens Angels Trumpets

There is a fine yellow tree peony (Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii ) also just opening in the shade – a less showy tree peony to be remembered for its fine architectural leaves – and a rare yellow, wonderfully fragrant honeysuckle Lonicera ‘Anne Fletcher’ draped over a clever screen made of sleepers which divides the garden and creates a discreet place for a table and chairs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii

Lonicera ‘Anne Fletcher’

The clever screen – tall enough to really feel hidden away but light enough to see through – made of railway sleepers

The glass table is the first piece of furniture Charles designed.  He has made many pieces of indoor furniture: it would be fantastic if he would consider making outdoor furniture too. I love this curved oak slatted seat and footstool. Next step a bench in the same elegant, rustic/industrial style?

Oak seat and foot stool designed by Charles Rutherfoord

The garden is full of much loved individual touches. There are exquisite plants Charles has fallen for which intrigue close-up but have a surprisingly easy going presence within the garden as a whole. This finely veined pink camellia for example (which I think is Camellia japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’) or the white-edged purple lilac ‘Sensation’ which billows in soft clouds in one corner of the garden.

Camellia japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’

Lilac ‘Sensation’

And there are covetable pieces of sculpture, my favourite are a pair of stone finials of shooting flames which Charles has placed to frame the view of the garden from the balcony.  I love the simplicity and strength of the flames and their robust stands – they could almost be contemporary but they are Italian Baroque – from a church or bishop’s palace perhaps.

One of a pair of baroque stone finials which frame the view down to the garden

Fascinatingly – and fitting for a story about gardens which have many layers – these finials were used by Cleve West in his 2012 Chelsea Garden and bought by Rupert for the garden when the show garden was dismantled. Cleve West had used them brilliantly at the top of Arts and Crafts influenced gate posts – so when the flames arrived in Clapham the bulbous stands were an added bonus.

Cleve West’s 2012 Chelsea Garden for Brewin Dolphin

Nestled at the end of the tulip border is a rather space age Solardome greenhouse. Inside, on beautiful hardwood shelving (of course), are succulents, pelargoniums and a happy lemon tree with impossibly fat lemons. The centre of the greenhouse is filled with huge containers of dahlias just coming into leaf –  ‘purples and oranges, mostly cactus varieties’. These will replace the tulips for the summer. There is something magical about looking out onto the exuberant garden through the misty geometric panes.
Succulents and a lemon tree in the greenhouse with glimpses of the exuberant garden beyond

How extraordinary to have seen so many centuries of intense English spring garden in the space of just a few days. I could not have done more even with my own time travel machine.

Charles Rutherfoord’s and Rupert Tyler’s Solardome Greenhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT I LEARNT FROM THE CROCUS KING

ON THE TRAIL OF E A BOWLES – SLOWING DOWN MY THINKING ABOUT CROCUS AND OTHER SPRING BULBS

img_2199The silvery outer petals of not-yet-open Crocus tommasinianus, my front garden.

img_2207Radiant silvery-mauve Crocus tommasinianus displaying their rich orange stamen in the sunshine.

My relationship with crocus has, up until now, been a simple one. I have loved the gentle reliability of the silvery-mauve Crocus tommasinianus and as a garden designer I have often used it as the first to flower in a bulb programme for clients’ gardens. It works well planted generously (they are not expensive) to form an undulating ribbon to quietly light up a border in February. It is also wonderfully effective in grass. In my own front garden I have planted a semi circle around a multi stemmed magnolia tree. I love the way the crocus foliage emerges suddenly each year from the expanse of lawn, at first offering an almost ghostly silvery sweep and then, on the first really sunny day, socking it to the street, an uplifting arc of rich purple which literally stops passers-by in their tracks.

img_2198The closed crocus form a discreet ordered semi circle.

img_2210For a week or two the open crocus become an eye-catching swathe of purple.

Contrary to popular myth my semi circle was not intended to form a ‘C’ (the initial of my family surname) but I do have a friend whose husband planted her initial – ‘O’ – in Crocus tommasinianus in the lawn one autumn as a complete surprise for her. If the weather works in your favour the crocus should be in flower on Valentine’s Day so a romantic gesture to try perhaps this autumn?

Earlier this week I found myself heading, initially rather unpromisingly, to Enfield, North London, to find out more about one of the twentieth century’s great gardeners – and  ‘Crocus King’ –  E A Bowles (1865-1954).

img_8894img_8823Turkey Street Enfield – en route to Myddelton House.

It is hard to imagine now what it must have been like to arrive at Bowles’ home, Myddelton House, in the late 19th and early 20th century, but on March 1st 2017 it was a relief to get away from the network of subways leading from a lonely section of Ginger Line and arrive at the imposing early 19th house where the eminent plantsman spent so many years growing studying, painting and writing about plants.

img_8877 img_8876Myddelton House

In 1914 Bowles wrote ‘My Garden in Spring’ based on his personal and passionate observations of the garden around the family home. He gardened here with tireless experimentation despite his frustration at the growing conditions: “the climate, soil and trees contrive to make it the driest and hungriest in Great Britain”. ‘My Garden in Spring’ was followed by ‘My Garden in Summer’ (also published in 1914) and ‘My Garden in Autumn and WInter’ (1915). These became best sellers, regularly reprinted, and were followed by ‘A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum’ (1924)  and ‘A Handbook of Narcissus (1934), both leading studies of their day.

springMy 1972 edition of ‘My Garden in Spring’.

Bowles befriended the great plant hunters of the time – including the legendary Reginald Farrer who wrote a feisty introduction to ‘My Garden in Spring’ –  made hundreds of drawings and painting of plants (many now held at the RHS Lindley Library) and nurtured fine cultivars of a wide range of plants, many of which still bear his name today. These include the richly coloured – and edible – Viola ‘Bowles’s Black’, Carex elata ‘Aurea’ or Bowles’ Golden Sedge – a wonderful evergreen grass that lights up the darkest corner and Vinca minor ‘La Grave’ or ‘Bowles’ Variety’ – a fantastic ground cover plant, less invasive than Vinca major, smothered in lavender blue flowers from April to September. With typical charm, Vinca ‘Bowles’ Variety’ was spotted in a French churchyard en route to a plant hunting trip to the Alps.

bowles-blackThe richly coloured – and edible – Viola ‘Bowles’s Black’.

2a90ea6cd877be47ddbddb235629317b

Carex elata ‘Aurea’ or Bowles’ Golden Sedge – a wonderful evergreen grass that lights up the darkest corner.pl2000003981_card_lgVinca minor ‘La Grave’ or ‘Bowles’ Variety’ – a fantastic ground cover plant, less invasive than Vinca major, smothered in lavender blue flowers in from April to September.

‘My Garden in Spring’ has a gentle honesty that feels refreshing despite its age. ‘Many find the garden too museumy to please them’ he sets out frankly near the beginning of the book and there are some spectacularly ponderous diversions such as the following saga on the elusive definition of spring: ‘a large number of people over a certain age would insist that Spring no longer exists, and would probably endeavour to prove this assertion by lengthy reminiscences of halcyon days of yore, which provided early opportunities for picnics and thin raiment. Who has not heard their Great-Aunt Georgina hold forth on the Indian muslins that in bygone Mays were all-sufficient for her comfort…’

But it does not take long for the reader to be caught up in Bowles’ enthusiasm and enormous attention to detail. Here his description of Crocus balansae gives a taste of the depth of his passion:

crocus-oliveri-zwanenburg

Crocus olivieri ssp. balansae ‘Zwanenberg’ – photo courtesy of specialist Alpine nursery Potterton’s.

Crocus balansae … has three outer segments externally of a deep mahogany colour, and in bud looks nearly black and is very hard to see, but the moment these deep-coloured segments part, the rich orange of the inner segments makes a most conspicuous and beautiful object of the flower … Everyone who sees it for the first time is astonished at its beauty, and can hardly believe it is real, like the little girl at the Zoo, who after gazing at the Anteaters said, ” But there aren’t really such animals as those, are there, Nurse.”‘

Bowles can be as furiously dismissive of certain crocus as he is enthusiastic about others. ‘I do not care so much for large clumps of any white form. At the back of the borders they look too cold, and suggest unmelted snow pats’ or, of Crocus graveolens, ‘one little yellow crocus has an obnoxious trait in its character and is a little stinking beast, as Dr Johnson defined the stoat’. But mostly he just wants to explain why ‘every garden ought to have large clumps of (yellow) crocus to brighten up the bare soil in February’ or the charms of his favourite Crocus chrysanthus ‘I greatly admire a gourd-shaped crocus; it means that the throat is wide and full, and the segments ample and rounded … so that an unopened blossom has a distance waist about two-thirds of the way down … when fully expanded the segments bend outwards from above this waist, forming a round rather than starry flower.’

I am beginning to look at the crocus with different eyes. ‘We treat Crocuses au grand sérieux in this garden, giving over two double-light frames to their service in the very sunniest part of the kitchen garden’ writes Bowles at the beginning of his chapter on the genus. It is these frames, re-introduced to the garden at Myddelton House by the hard-working E A Bowles Society,  that I have come to see with the London group of the conservation charity, Plant Heritage.

Walking into the same ordered kitchen garden – extensively restored since 2009 with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund – and peaking into the steeply slanting Peach House with its immaculately fan-trained peaches pink with blossom, I feel a pang of desire when I arrive at the jewel box National Collection of Crocus, each in its individual pot embedded in sand.

img_8840The Peach House with fan-trained peaches in full blossom.

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img_3386 img_3398The fleet of stilted cold frames containing the E A Bowles Society National Collection of Crocus cultivars.

Liz MacNicol is the splendidly named Crocus Co-ordinator at Myddelton House  (NB this is a Plant Heritage job title – extreme general enthusiasts go under the banner of ‘Croconut’).  A National Collection is defined as a collection of at least 75% of available cultivars and, in the case of the E A Bowles Society collection, cultivars includes all those bred by E A Bowles and still known to be in existence. Infuriatingly the yellow Crocus chyrsanthus E A Bowles seems to have disappeared altogether – although there have been hopeful sightings as reported by John Grimshaw in 2010.

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Painting by E A Bowles of Crocus chysanthus ‘E A Bowles’ courtesy of John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary

The Myddelton House Crocus Collection is painstakingly monitored at every stage of growth. Watering begins in January and carries on weekly until the leaves have died down. The crocus are fed Phostrogen every fortnight during the same period and deadheaded weekly so that the plants do not set seed (with the obvious danger of cross fertilisation). This year everything was very late because of the cold spell in January. Liz was convinced there would be precious losses as ‘there was no green at all’ in the second week of January, but in fact the cool but steady early spring that has followed seems to be bringing about a satisfyingly long display. I am surprised and then saddened that the crocus are not labelled and only numbered for security reasons, but perhaps the advantage of no name is that you look even harder at the tiny differences in shade and delicate marking of the pots of crocus on display.

Of course there is no harm in a little light guesswork. This gorgeous, singing pink, starry-flowered crocus is probably Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’ described by the specialist nursery Potterton’s as ‘an outstanding and justifiably popular form with numerous large, bright rose-pink flowers, that are silvery-grey outside’.

img_8848Possibly Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’.

And this is possibly Crocus chrysanthus ‘Snow Bunting’ which Potterton’s Nursery describes as    ‘…ivory with a faint purple blush on the outside of the petals. It has a delicate musky scent and bright yellow orangey anthers and has received the RHS Award of Garden Merit.’ img_8849

The wonderfully delicate ‘Snow Bunting’ is the only crocus bred by E A Bowles still commercially available. It naturalises happily and is absolutely one for my autumn list:
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Crocus ‘Snow Bunting’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

As I read up about the finely marked, washed lavender ‘Blue Pearl’ – often one of the earliest crocus to emerge and surprisingly tough and long lasting in grass – and the vibrant purple feathering on the pale yellow fragrant ‘Gypsy Girl’, I realise that my list of desirable (and happily readily available) crocus is growing longer and longer.

blue-pearl-fullCrocus biflorus ‘Blue Pearl’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

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Crocus ‘Gypsy Girl’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

Other crocus are extremely rare, surviving only by being nurtured in this careful way and should be enjoyed for the short time they are in flower. The Myddelton House Collection contains such treasures as the slow-to-reproduce and the graceful Crocus ‘Kittiwake’ (Bowles named a whole series of crocus after birds, one of his other great interests), and Crocus tommasinianus ‘Bobbo’ named ‘to remind me of the sharp-eyed boy who was the first to spot it’.

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Crocus ‘Kittiwake’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

bobbo-fullCrocus tommasinianus ‘Bobbo’ – Crocus © the E A Bowles society.

Beyond the cold frames at Myddelton House, Bowles encouraged Crocus tommasinianus to form generous uplifting drifts along with snowdrops. He would be constantly on the look out for unusual crocus which he would select and grow on. So now, as well as being able to choose a particular shade – a darker purple or a more rosy hue perhaps – there are opportunities to extend the period of colour by planting bulbs which flower in succession. 

img_8855 img_8856 img_8862Huge numbers of Crocus tommasinianus and snowdrops in the Alpine Meadow and Rock Garden at Myddelton House.

I find myself turning again to Anna Pavord’s wonderful book ‘Bulb’ (published in 2009, so a mere sprig in horticultural book years) to find out more. ‘Bulb’ was the result of season after season of growing every kind of bulb and taking the trouble to observe them closely and to appreciate both finer and irritating qualities. It is written in her usual seductive style which is both learned and personal and by the end I am dangerously resolved to grow entire table-fulls of bulbs in pots next year, as well as to attend to the question of succession in my own front garden.

bulb-2BULB by Anna Pavord.

A wise sequence of Crocus tommasinianus could well be the mid February flowering ‘Whitewell Purple’ (‘the stigma is brilliant orange, the stamens paler, though you need sun to see the beauty of the inside, when the flower opens flat like a spreadeagled sunbather’), ‘Barr’s Purple’, named after the great Victorian nurseryman Peter Barr, and finally the late February ‘Ruby Giant’ which, as Ms Pavord wryly observes, is ‘neither ruby, nor a giant, it is a beautiful crocus, the three outer petals faintly stippled with paler streaks’.

crocwhitewellcuCrocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ – photograph © Broadleigh Bulbs.

Crocus ‘Barr’s Purple’ – photograph © Potterton’s Nursery.

crocus-tomm-ruby-giantCrocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ – photograph © Potterton’s Nursery. 

Mulling this over – how many of each to order to top up my existing Crocus tommasinianus? – I step out of the Kitchen Garden into a series of glass houses. These are furnished with families of colourful exotic plants and have the friendly, storytelling quality of a Henri Rousseau painting.

 Glass House next to the Kitchen Garden.

My favourite is a glass conservatory built onto the house itself. I love the chequered floor tiles, the white painted, curly Victorian ironwork and inside a little world of shocking pink flowers,  skinny, emerald green cactus and a louche flowering Aeonium in an old lead water tank.  Perhaps because of the curiousness of the collection, and the proximity to the house, there is a feeling of pure excitement in the conservatory that brings us a little closer to the great man himself. 

Conservatory, Myddelton House

I speed back into town where I am to meet Andrea Brunsendorf, the talented and exacting Head Gardener of the Inner Temple Gardens – the constantly surprising three acres of garden surrounded by Barristers’ chambers between Temple and Blackfriars stations. I wrote about the gardens in their full September glory in my The Dahlia Papers post SECRET LONDON BENCHES. 

I have already heard about Andrea’s frustration with the damage a group of six or seven pigeons, a mixture of wood and street pigeons, are inflicting year after year on the south facing bank where she has tried everything she can to achieve something even close to a sheet of crocus.  She explains that her lack of success is particularly galling as she trained at Kew which is famous for its huge spreading seas of pale purple and white at this time of year and yet all she has to show on March 1st are these sporadic dark purple clumps of ‘Ruby Giant’ (remember Anna Pavord’s wise words : ‘Ruby Gian’ is neither ruby, nor giant’).

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ on the south facing bank – The Meadow – at Inner Temple Gardens.

Beheaded clumps of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’, Inner Temple Gardens.

Pigeons are well known for attacking yellow crocus, and some gardeners will avoid yellow ones completely, but Andrea has used only purple and white cultivars, and has done everything by the book: successional planting of different crocuses in an open sunny spot, starting off with several hundred in each section and then adding perhaps 150 new bulbs each year; she has employed fake birds of prey; real hawks (‘the hawks came on Wednesdays and the pigeons just came back on the Thursday’); and one year she went for the full allotment style CD’s dancing in the wind. We discuss other possible crocuses – Sarah Raven’s favourite crocus is Crocus chrysanthus ‘Spring Beauty’ which she regards as super tough as well as exquisite with deep purple feathering on pale mauve and Dan Pearson had success in his London garden with Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ – one that Andrea has not in fact tried. Andrea notes these down with wistful enthusiasm and then her face lights up with a fanciful idea of sourcing hundreds of yellow windmills – the kind children play with at the seaside – and planting them in droves amongst the crocus… There have been better years: ‘once we had not cleared the Persicaria orientalis on the borders immediately above the meadow so there was a great alternative food source nearby which seemed to make a difference.’ But it is an incredibly difficult thing to experiment with scientific precision when you are caring for a garden that has to look good throughout the year.

In the end Andrea thinks she will have to look to other plants to accompany the crocus – scillas probably (although they are ‘disappointingly pale’), or the rich gold and mahogany coloured Primula ‘Gold Lace’.

Primula ‘Goldlace’ amongst emerging Smirnium perfoliatum elsewhere in the garden.

The Inner Temple Garden is open to the public during the week at lunch time. There are rare trees and shrubs, amazing displays of tulips and the herbaceous borders are an extraordinary contrast to the manifestly serious buildings which surround them. It is worth visiting at absolutely any time of year. What is more,  Andrea Brunsendorf’s quarterly column on her work in the garden, Garden News, is full of inspiring and generous observations.

When I visited a few days ago I was smitten by this gorgeous, weeping Acacia pravissima – a small elegant evergreen tree about to burst into yellow, fragrant flower and by the low mounding cushions of Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ softening the central stone steps and again on the verge of opening into scented, paler yellow flower:

Acacia pravissima

Coronilla valentina subsp. ‘Citrina’.

As we are saying goodbye, Andrea has an idea. Looking across at the Iris unguicularis that are thriving on the same bank, nestling amongst lush mediterranean planting, she suddenly wonders if she could use mounds of this ‘Algerian Iris’ on the challenging south facing bank. Iris unguicularis is an exquisite plant which flowers over a long period from late winter to early spring and would give exciting height and bulk to the entire slope.

Iris unguicularis nestling amongst Mediterranean planting on the Wildflower Bank, Inner Temple Gardens.

Extraordinarily, E A Bowles writes in ‘My Garden in Spring’ ‘Suppose a wicked uncle who wished to check your gardening zeal left you pots of money on condition you grew on one species of plants: what would you choose? I should settle on Iris unguicularis.’ Bowles loved the plant for its ‘soft lilac colouring and crystalline texture’ and for  its’ scent, ‘fuller than the scent of Primrose, with a promise of honey strong enough to wake any bee (but with a) correcting sharpness in it, like that of lemon with the sugar of a shrove Tuesday pancake’. Best of all, even for the Crocus King, it is simply ‘the first flower of spring’.

Andrea worries for a moment what would happen to the Iris unguicularis when, later in the year, she mows the entire bank. How would Iris unguicularis react to that?  ‘Well, you are not supposed to cut Kniphofia to the ground but I do it and it comes back …’.

 I suspect a wonderful solution has been found.

TO SISSINGHURST – IN JANUARY – TO ADMIRE THE ROSES

BALLETIC ROSE PRUNING, CRISP STRUCTURAL PLANTING, PREPARING FOR ‘THE EXTRAVAGANCE OF SPRING’img_3305

Immaculately choreographed, pruned stems of Rosa mulliganii against the sky, The White Garden, Sissinghurst.

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Effervescent – also beautifully choreographed, obviously –  Burns Night Haggis Dinner in Peckham given by Jake TilsonJeff Lee and their daughter Hannah Tlison (above).

img_3377The Top Courtyard, Sissinghurst Castle, the walls laced with the curving stems of pruned roses.

I am standing at the entrance to Sissinghurst Castle barely able to keep myself away from leaping over the box hedge and forensically examining the wall ahead of me. It is almost the last day of January. The glowing end-of-winter Burns night festivities are over and after a freezing couple of weeks – down to -7ºC here in Kent – the weather has become milder and there is a feeling that things in the garden are beginning to get on their way. I am with Sissinghurst Head Gardener, Troy Scott Smith, who bends down gently to point out the emerging shoots of peonies –  for now just tiny dashes of carmine red against velvet brown soil. He is describing how it feels to be in the garden at this time of year “There is something nice about a quiet spell.  I think gardens that are open to the public need it. There is something wholesome about that full cycle, the contrast with the extravagance of spring and summer”.

Troy has generously agreed to show me the garden in winter and knows I am dead keen to start with the roses.

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img_3370 img_3371                  The entrance to Sissinghurst Castle, Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’ against the brick wall.

To the right of a brick arch there is an eighty year old ‘Golden Rambler’, Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’. Peter Beales describes it as ‘ a repeat-flowering Noisette rose with cascading clusters of double, shapely flowers, yellow with ‘eggy’ centres paling to cream and eventually white at the edges. Highly perfumed and producing long, slightly spindly branches ideal for arches and trellises’. It is wonderful to see how carefully and cleverly the rose has been pruned for maximum coverage and softly-falling flowering. Long stems are retained and curved to form softly rounded steps and counter-steps against the wall. There are plenty of the horizontal stems (necessary for maximum flowering),  but the whole system is flowing rather than rigid, as so much rose-pruning tends to end up. These gentle shapes will be entirely achievable (I tell myself) if I look hard enough at these images and use them as a guide next time I head out into the garden with my secateurs ….

I feel a little pressurised to learn that rose-pruning at Sissinghurst is almost over – indeed pruning began on October 15th! The climbing roses against the walls go first – ‘for two reasons: first it is cold and windy high up, second we can clear the beds after pruning at the right time of year.’ Troy uses the classic Nutscene garden twine (in green) and was so frustrated with the flimsiness/garishness of modern vine eyes that he had a mould made of an old one and now a blacksmith keeps the garden supplied with these bespoke chunky vine eyes for the 2mm wires that stretch along the brick. ‘We tend to go twice round the wire and once round the stem of the rose’.img_8605                                                                  Nutscene garden twine.

img_8581             Troy Scott Smith’s handmade vine eyes based on an old example from the garden.

When the roses have been pruned they are given fertiliser (Sissinghurst has its own recipe: 2 parts Sulphate of Potash to 1 part Kieserite), and then a layer of compost – ‘compost is an underrated thing’ sighs Troy – is spread at the base of the plant. Once the buds have started to break in mid March, a fortnightly spraying regime begins – it takes two gardeners two hours to get round the extensive rose collection. There is a wisdom combined with an experimental curiosity in Troy’s approach which I will see again and again over the course of the morning. He will try out different combinations of traditional fungicides and Savona soap solution and regularly sprays with liquid seaweed feed or SB Plant Invigorator (which is new to me and looks impressive) too. ‘We pause for the main flowering period June, July. Last year we did a little bit of an experiment where we didn’t spray a number of roses for the last part of the summer’. The blackspot and rust came back with vigour but he is happy that he has tried.
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SB Plant Invigorator.

Against the entrance arch the octogenarian ‘Alistair Stella Gray’ is not as vigorous as it used to be so instead of trying to get it to stretch over the entire arch it has been ‘retreated’ to one side and a new ‘Alistair Stella Gray’ planted on the opposite side of the arch so that the two can meet.

Ageing plants provide a constant challenge for Troy and his team throughout the garden. In the White Garden there is a famous central arbour smothered in Rosa mulligani .

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Rosa mulliganii in flower.

 In fact, to maintain a spectacular display of this fragrant rose (believed to be the biggest of climbing rose available in the UK), there are now three roses, the original one, a second one planted by the previous Sissinghurst Head Gardener, Alexis Datta, and now Troy has added a third rose – all trained over the iron arbour designed by Nigel Nicholson, with assistance from rose expert Graham Stuart Thomas, when the original rose was at its most vigorous. The pruning regime of the three roses remains the same with the aim of producing spare, dancing ‘living lace’  that stops the heart on this cold winter day and will produce an incredible frothing canopy of white in midsummer.

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img_8408 img_8411 The Rosa muliganii arbour in The White Garden – the stems of the rose are pruned into heartstoppingly beautiful ‘Living Lace’.

Elsewhere in the garden the same looping pruning discipline prevails – against walls, next to a spur-pruned apple tree at the back of the shop, along strong wire to create a stand alone rose ‘fence’ and, looking particularly handsome on this grey January day, against the white clapboard building next to the café:

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The Sissinghurst ‘living lace’ style of rose pruning against walls and fences.

In the walled Rose Garden the shrub roses are supposed to be finished by the end of the week.  There is a rhythmic calm as the team (there are six full time gardeners, two part time gardeners and a number of invaluable volunteers) make their way through the space, pruning and clearing as they go, creating a low creeping world of supple crinolines and elegant towers. The crinolines are created by arching the new, flexible stems into semi-circles and training these onto hazel hoops or ‘benders’ in the ground.

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img_8469           img_3368Shrub roses, trained into Louise Bourgoi-like spider shapes, take over the Rose Garden.

The South facing Rose Garden walls are dizzy with fabulously tangled figs. It is fascinating to see, again, how crucial curves are to achieve the right sort of comfortable fullness when the figs come into leaf. Pruning the figs is a finely judged matter – it takes place as late as possible at Sissinghurst because of the tenderness of the figs. But in a warm spell the leaves break fast so when the moment comes the walls need to be tackled at speed.

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The fabulously tangled wall trained figs – pruning to take place as late as possible.

As we watch the steady transformation of the taller shrub roses from stands of impenetrable shagginess to clearly defined towers with neat scalloped frames, Troy explains his plans to reintroduce an avenue of cherry trees into the Rose Garden. Despite extensive research, it is not known which cherries Vita Sackville-West originally planted so he has decided on the winter flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella autumnalis) which she is known to have liked and which crucially has a reasonably  light  canopy. Obviously the moment you plant trees in a border there will be a knock-on effect on the planting beneath it … …’The only problem with the winter flowering cherry is that visitors won’t really see it’ he adds with a slightly anxious laugh (giving me a glimpse for a moment of the incredible number of ingredients that must be juggled for every decision made in this world famous, historic garden), but then he is reassured by the fact that the Rose Garden can be seen from the Tower and glimpsed en route to the the newly open-to-the-public South Cottage, both of which are open throughout the winter.

img_8467 img_3367The transformation of a taller shrub rose.

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The compact boards which are used throughout the borders during pruning to protect the heavy clay soil.

As I walk to take in the famous view from the Tower I am reminded that there is one rose in the garden which will not, of course, be pruned until just after it has flowered. The thornless evergreen rambler, Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, is one of the earliest roses to flower – it has clusters of pale lemon flowers in late spring – and at Sissinghurst it forms a delicate screen of foliage in the central arch which beckons you onwards and which will explode into a haze of yellow later in the year.

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Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ against the arch that separates the Top Courtyard from the Lower Courtyard.

Once at the top of the tower it is a complete pleasure to take in the clean-edged sculptural quality of the yew hedges and the quartet of Irish yews in the garden of South Cottage. If you are ever flagging in your faith in the power of structure in the garden, head to Sissinghurst as early in the year as you can (the entire garden will be open this year from March 11th).

img_3379 img_3381The clean lines of yew hedges especially seen from the Tower.

Within the garden the hedges play a shifting series of roles. Here, tight clipped yew provides ballast and guides the eye firmly into the distance:

img_8488                                     Yew hedges guide the eye firmly into the distance.

Elsewhere the velvet green planes provide a wonderful back-drop to red winter stems or the pale silvery buds of magnolia  :

img_3349img_8570Red winter stems and silvery magnolia buds against velvety green yew.

I love this glimpse of the Herb Garden with pea sticks leaning ready for action against the wooden bench which nestles so comfortably between buttresses of yew. The bleached-out, silvery-mauve aromatic plants remain soft and inviting against the vivid green backdrop.

img_3317The Herb Garden.

Not a hedge – obviously – but this mown path through the damp grass of the Orchard has a surprisingly powerful presence.

img_3310The serene Orchard path.

There is a considerable amount of important box hedging in the garden which carries the usual worries of box in the 21st century – plus particular stylistic concerns for this famous garden.   Troy is tackling the situation in his characteristic surefooted and gently experimental way. In the White Garden he wants to loosen up the low box edging for a more abundant, relaxed feel – ‘I think Sissinghurst became too tidy’ – but at the same time has to balance the more fitting, softer aesthetic with the level of irritation the narrower paths might bring forth from demanding visitors. He is relaxed about the way the expanding hedges are looking a bit rough around the edges as they are allowed to grow. If there is an ailing section of hedge he moves box plants from elsewhere in the garden to fill the gap (he would not consider introducing new box into the garden now) and, in case the worse happens – ‘I have the sad feeling we will have to take all our box out one day’ – he has just brought in a load of Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’ (the box leaved euonymus) to trial.

img_8416             Box edging in the White Garden – beginning to bulge satisfactorily.

Elsewhere in the garden the Lion Pond at the base of the old Elizabethan wall is brought alive in winter by the vibrant fresh green of some low box hedging.

img_8571The fresh green of a section of box hedging near the Lion Pond gives this area energy at the beginning of the year.

Yew and pleached lime trees are a vital and anchoring combination both at the front of the Castle and at the approach to the Lime Walk from South Cottage.

img_3385Yew hedge and pleached limes at the front of Sissinghurst Castle.

The four Irish yews in the Cottage Garden are incredibly beautiful at any time of year. In this photograph there is the wonderful extra layering of Irish yew with box drums behind and then a clipped yew hedge directly in front of a section of  pleached lime.img_3364              Rich layering of Irish yew, box, yew hedge and pleached lime in the Cottage Garden

The Lime Walk is famous for its immaculate avenue of trained lime trees underplanted with spring bulbs.

img_3323The Lime Walk.

But of course nothing about a garden can stand still and it takes a skilled and subtle gardener to tackle the challenges that the Lime Walk quietly but insistently poses. Troy has changed the pruning regime of the trees themselves – bringing the date forward from August to Midsummer’s Day. This brings more light into the walk itself during the summer and leads to a haze of wonderful ruby growth.

img_3325Deep red new growth on the lime trees a result of midsummer pruning.

He is fond of this effect, but at the back of his mind is a slight worry that this pruning regime may perhaps be weakening the trees. At the same time the branches are becoming altogether too long and a further experiment is taking place – luckily on a shorter stretch of lime trees elsewhere in the garden – to reduce the branches considerably .

Then there are the bulb beds underneath the trees. I can see hundreds of Crocus tommasinianus shoots, but my enthusiasm is quickly checked as Troy explains that the crocus has become ‘so aggressive and spread so well that it outcompetes some of the finer tulips and fritillaries’.  Sections of border are being taken up each year, cleared, sterilised and then the bulbs (which are planted in mixed groups in pots to create as natural an effect as possible as quickly as possible) are sunk into the beds.

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Hundreds of unwanted Crocus tommasinianus shoots in the beds of the Lime Walk.

Then there are questions of opening up the area immediately beyond the Lime Walk so that visitors can stroll down unimpeded to the lake – and how best to do this of course – and beyond the Lime Walk is the Nuttery where the underplanting is also getting out of balance (Troy remembers a lighter, more dancing tapestry of planting when he was here before in 1992-97 ). Added to this, the mostly yellow azalea border across the path is about to be replaced with a much richer palette of azaleas underplanted with brightly coloured polyanthus (which Vita had until 1973) and glamorous peonies and lilies ‘It might be a bit bold in places but you don’t want to be too tasteful’ muses the Head Gardener with a grin.
img_8443                                                   Silhouette of pleached lime against the sky.
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img_8433The Nuttery – the underplanting is under review so that the epimedium seen here for example does become too dominant.

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The Azalea Bank left – about to undergo a 1970’s polaroid transformation.

As well as a host of venerable garden advisors and historians, Dan Pearson comes on a voluntary basis twice a year to act as an advisor and sounding board. I can imagine that these are productive and hugely enjoyable days much appreciated even by the most thoughtful of Head Gardeners..

Before I leave the garden I make a note of the straightforward plants which are looking good even at this time of the year. The blue-grey leaved Euphorbia characias is as always looking fresh and strong – such a great architectural plant that always helps an area of the garden look well furnished and happy.

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Euphorbia characias adding fullness to the spare winter border against the Elizabethan Wall.

At the entrance to South Cottage Mahonia and Helleborus foetidus look bright and fresh, especially perhaps because they are each given a good amount of space in which to shine.

img_8564Mahonia and Helleborus foetidus against the entrance to South Cottage.

One of my surprise favourites is this fine, spikey pair of Yucca gloriosa which I admit to never having used, but which looks wonderfully at home with box and rosemary at the base of this aged red wall.

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Yucca glorious anchoring the entrance border.

One sneaky inclusion in this list is Rosa ‘Meg’ which is also growing at the entrance. It is a rose I have not grown – and which was obviously not in flower! –  but which has, I discover, large, almost single, beautifully waved flowers and a delicate pink-apricot colour, with red-gold stamens. It would look wonderful in a garden with my favourite Rosa mutabilis whose flowers pass through shades of apricot yellow to coppery pink.

15094Rosa ‘Meg’.

Another new discovery is the rare evergreen shrub Distylium racemosum, or Winter-hazel, which is sunning itself on the left of the central Courtyard archway with some Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Sissinghurst Blue’ bursting out at its feet. I have tracked it down to the wonderful Bluebell Nursery where it has a rave review ‘a slow growing attractive evergreen tree from Japan… in spring attractive, small, red Hamamelis-like flowers with lurid purple stakes appear on the older branches’. One for the shopping list.
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Distylium racemosum growing to the left of the Courtyard arch.

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The red witch hazel like flowers of Distylium racemosum. (Photograph courtesy of Bluebell Nursery).

The oldest rose in the garden is the ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ that covers the front of South Cottage. This was the first thing planted by Vita Sackville West in the entire garden and it is this rose that gets ceremoniously pruned first in the middle of October. I was charmed to discover that Vita had determinedly planted the rose before the couple had actually signed the Title Deeds for the Castle, a sort of guarantee to herself that she was going to make a garden here.

It is a move I might employ myself in some lonely country plot in the coming years. Husband, be warned.
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Rosa ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ against South Cottage – the oldest plant in the garden.

 

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A CYMBIDIUM (OR AN ONCIDIUM)

PLUS WHAT TO DO WITH A BAG OF SPANISH MOSS?

img_7903Plump citrus yellow Cymbidium flowers just opening at McBean’s Orchids

img_7974_3Glamorous, particularly fine Oncidium plants at McBean’s Orchids

The scent is extraordinary – vanilla? clove? tuberose? Exotic of course, from far away.  It is outrageously seductive.  I have only just stepped out of an exhilaratingly frosty December day and into the first of a series of milky-paned glasshouses at McBean’s Orchids in East Sussex and already I find myself wanting more of the intense perfume, coveting an exquisitely salmon-marbled Oncidium and wondering simply where orchids have been all my life?

img_7977_3Just opening claret coloured Cymbidium in the glasshouse at McBean’s Orchids, East Sussex

img_7972_3Exquisite salmon-marbled oncidium, Mcbean’s Orchids, Sussex

I love the energy of the Cymbidium leaves:

img_7863_3Yellow flowered Cymbidium its leaves stretching upwards and outwards.

There are orchids everywhere in a series of greenhouses, stretching away on long wheeled tables.img_7870                             wheeled tables stretching away into the distance, McBean’s Orchids

There are junior plants dense in their trays  (it takes four to five years to nurture an orchid until it is ready for sale).img_7908_3                                      Tray upon tray of tiny orchid plants, McBean’s Orchids

There are teenage ones, signposted with delightfully incongruous Scottish names such as ‘Castle of Mey’ – never forget that Mr McBean, who established the nursery in 1879, was a Scot. Originally the business specialised in ferns but Mr McBean was canny enough to spot the potential of the seedling orchids that appeared uninvited on imported fern plants and so the revered orchid nursery began.

img_7921_3Young Cymbidium ‘Castle of Mey’

And there are champion ones such as ‘Big Tracy’, a 40 year old sweet smelling Cymbidium tracyanum with pistachio coloured flowers marked with brown. Every year there is a playful flower-count as the plant grows even bigger.  2016 has been a bumper year with 630 translucent tiger-striped blooms.

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img_3227The enormous 40+ year old ‘Big Tracy’ – Cymbidium tracyanum –  at McBean’s Orchids

It has been a wonderfully crisp and blue-skied early winter here in London and the South East.  There have been freezing nights followed by glittering early mornings which have transformed the spreading leaves of cardoons and the sculpted mounts of Euphorbia characias in my local Ruskin Park into exquisitely shimmering ball gowns:

img_7857Gorgeous frosted leaves of cardoons and Euphorbia characias 

Sheets of Cyclamen hederfolium huddled in the grass are frozen solid, the frost lacing the slightly puckered marbled leaves with an icy pompom edging.

img_7855Frozen Cyclamen hederifolium

Stands of Calamagrostis are ablaze in the morning sunshine and the still-hanging-in-there, rich yellow festoons of wisteria foliage make for a slightly decadent party atmosphere.

img_7854                                     Stands of Calamagrostis ablaze in the morning sunshine


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Festoons of rich yellow wisteria foliage make for a slightly decadent party atmosphere

Back at McBean’s my spirits rise as I find out more about their speciality Cymbidium and Oncidium orchids and how they could fill my house with colour from December until April just as the garden has gone so quiet. Above the exuberant light-catching foliage there are bursts of speckled pink, an elusive grey-orange, white with dashes of the freshest egg yolk yellow and spotted claret and pink ones ones like slivers of the most expensive Italian marble.

img_7969_3Cymbidium December Orange

img_3246An arching stem of yellow Cymbidium

Cool growing Oncidium (formerly know as Odontoglossum) and modern hybrid Cymbidium hail from subtropical Asia and were hugely popular in Victorian times. But they have been lying quietly beyond the contemporary mindset, our interest dulled by the elegant but supermarket invading moth orchid (Phaelonopsis). Not that McBean’s does not sell tempting, strangely speckled or dark wine coloured Phalaenopsis too, but their speciality and comparative rarity lies in their range of gorgeous, exuberant Cymbidium and the more delicate and only slightly more challenging Oncidium.img_3253                                            A perfectly poised stem of deep pink Oncidium
img_3257                                          A prize Oncidium with marble-like markings in claret.

‘They are the ultimate sustainable plant’ explains the feisty Rose Armstrong as she takes me on an uplifting tour of the nursery which she bought – pretty much by accident – in 2015.  Rose had been coming to McBeans for years. On a visit to buy an orchid as a present she was distraught to find that the business was on the verge of closing down, and found herself buying the whole set up  (along with her headhunter husband, Stretch) and taking on the task of saving and reviving this longstanding British brand.  ‘McBeans have exhibited at nearly every Chelsea Flower show and have won over 80 gold medals. We are one of only three remaining British orchid nurseries, we have an incredible stock to breed from and unbeatable expertise.’  Indeed Head Nurseryman, Jim Durrant has worked at the nursery developing ever more exquisite plants since 1971.

McBean’s has provided orchids for Royalty – famously for Princess Diana’s wedding bouquet – Mrs Thatcher is said to have insisted on McBean’s orchids at No. 10 and there are still a handful of country house chatelaines who order several thousand pounds worth of orchids to decorate the house before a shooting party, but Rose is determined that the McBean orchid – the less well known cymbidiums and oncidiums in particular – are seen as a straightforward and cheerful addition to any contemporary home.

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Princess Diana’s wedding – her bouquet contained trailing stems of white orchids from McBean’s

I think Rose Armstrong has the right ingredients to make this work. She has a great eye and orchids are in her bones: amazingly both her grandmothers used to come to Mcbean’s in the autumn to buy orchids for the house.  She is also refreshingly straightforward in her approach to the task ahead. She tells me fondly that her other business is a petrol station with a small, perhaps old-fashioned, but perfectly successful shop ‘that just sells what you need when you’ve got a hangover after Saturday night:  ‘Redbull, fags … and sauces for Sunday lunch’.

Most importantly her approach to caring for orchids dispels the kind of myths that may have built up in your head for years. You may have stored away information gathered from pieces such as Amanda Gutterman’s entertaining but worrying feature for Gardensita  – The Orchid That Owned Me – in which Ms Gutterman achieves success by watering her orchids with gently melting ice cubes: the ultimate way to ‘water sparingly’.

10-orchidcare-erinboyle-gardenista      Photograph of the melting ice cube orchid-watering technique  by Amanda Gutterman courtesy of Gardenista

But for Rose Armstrong the advice is much more straight forward.  ‘Rule no 1 is to water with rainwater only – just keep a lemonade bottle of rainwater mixed with Orchid feed under the sink and use this every three out of four times you water’.

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Rule 2: Don’t water very much (use a wooden stick poked in the potting medium to see if there is still moisture available), and put a layer of gravel under the pot to help drainage and keep the atmosphere around the plant moist. Rule 3: Keep the plant in good light but not direct sunlight away from radiators and draughts.  Rule 4: In the summer (April to October) put the plant outside in dappled shade ‘under the apple tree at the back of the garden’ . The plant needs a drop in temperature at night to form buds.  You can keep watering and feeding a bit during this time but not in July when the bud formation is taking place.

The really exciting thing about orchids of course is that as well as flowering for at least six to eight weeks, they will come back again year after year.  Some people worry that they will get too big but ‘it is easy to split them in two with a hacksaw’ –  with the obvious bonus of creating two plants from one.

img_7924_2Mature Cymbidium tracyanum on a trunk at McBean’s Orchids

I love the way that even the smaller cymbidiums have the potential to really change a room, the way they offer something of the settled quality of a log fire or a piano. And the bigger plants can be spectacular. At McBean’s there is a particularly covetable, heavenly scented Cymbidium tracyanum comfortable on an old trunk at the end of a sloping red-floored passageway in the nursery against an industrial painted glass wall.

The red-floored passageway leads to the Exhibition Room. This is an extraordinarily atmospheric stage set of a place with a backdrop of futuristic, silvery-grey corrugated window panes, waterfalls, pools, scented tumbling orchids amongst ferns and tiered stands of velvety green, ear-shaped begonia leaves  – the whole hung with ghostly festoons of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  I have only ever seen Spanish Moss before hanging spookily from gnarled trees in the ground of plantation houses outside New Orleans.  Here the Spanish moss is cool and airy and a curiously refreshing foil to the glossy firework exuberance of the tropical plants.

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img_3233The amazing Exhibition Room with pools, waterfalls, scented orchids, begonias, ferns and Spanish moss.

Elsewhere in the nursery I am taken by further sturdily voluptuous plants against milky blue glass (am feeling an urgent need to expand my knowledge of a whole new area of plants!)

img_7967Sturdily voluptuous plants against pale blue glass

And everywhere there are workbenches with new treasures.   I fall for a wonderful table laden with  gawky, long-limbed shrimp plants (Judicia brandegeeana ), Blue Rabbit’s Foot fern (Phlebodum pseudoareum) – and more Spanish moss:img_7915_3img_7976_3img_7917_3A potting bench where Shrimp plant cuttings share space with Spanish moss and a Blue Rabbit’s Foot fern

On the next table I am introduced to the slim and elegant mahogany flowered Cymbidium ‘Prince George’ and his neat, smaller younger sister ‘Princess Charlotte’

img_7968Cymbidium ‘Prince George’ and ‘Princess Charlotte’prince-georgeCymbidium ‘Prince George’

And so I am back in the sales area and in a mild panic about what to buy.  img_7971 img_7974_3ceramic-pots-main                                           The all too tempting sales area at McBeans’s Orchids

I go for a starter trio of Cymbidium ‘December Orange’, a soft pink speckled Cymbidium ‘McBean’s Loch Gilp Lewes’ and an Oncidium with magically suspended delicate pink on white flowers along a curved stem – just to raise the stakes.

img_7975_3My trio of orchids arrive home.

I have a Malaysian friend,  Valentine Willie who deals in contemporary art and has bases throughout Southeast Asia. He is crazy about orchids and I have always assumed that it is all very well for him – after all he will goad me with photographs of his jade vine in full bloom in his garden in Ubud, Bali – but that orchids are a no go area for me.

image-2Valentine’s Jade Vine, Ubud Bali

I am entertained to discover that where there is no garden at his KL apartment he has turned an entire bathroom into an ‘orchidarium cum fern house’.

imageValentine Willie’s KL bathroom/orchidariaum

A week on, my orchids are blooming away.  They are sitting on gravel, the rainwater/orchid fertilizer cocktail is mixed up in its plastic bottle under the sink and I hope I have chosen bright enough places for the plants to be happy.

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Cymbidium ‘December Orange’ – in terracotta orchid pot designed by Abbie Zabar for Seibert & Riceimg_8021Cymbidium ‘McBean’s Loch Gilp ‘Lewis”
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An elegant pink on white Oncidium

I didn’t quiz Rose for her line on misting the orchids. I feel I may succumb to a plant mister (Haws do a a very tempting nickel plated one which would make an ideal Christmas present – for me),  but I am unable to succumb to mixing olive oil, washing up liquid and water and using this to give the foliage a weekly polish.  Once you start reading up on orchids it is not too hard for the fear of impossibility to begin over again…Mostly I am excited at the way my new orchids add texture and colour to a room and even more excited by the challenge of keeping them going year after year.

There is one more immediate challenge of course (apart form three boys breaking up simultaneously next week from school and university, the whole of Christmas and the arrival of our first ever puppy …) to think of something artistic and festive to do with an entire bag of slivery-grey Spanish moss that Rose kindly gave me as I left.  Something for the weekend.

imageSpanish moss

NB If you are in London there is a Pop Up McBean’s Orchids now open at 235 Westbourne Grove W11