Monthly Archives: November 2013



At Great Dixter ( clusters of tight, unripened figs glow like little light bulbs on naked branches against the timber barn.  A brilliant, self contained symbol of autumn on a November day.

There is an uncertain edge to the mix of fresh full-colour plants and the fading crispy hues of others.

Here clumps of Nerine bowdenii provide bursts of bright pink against a more subdued palette – they work because the clumps are repeated regularly along the length of the path.


More Nerines, at the base of the lower terrace, loving their place in the sun with garlands of Erigeron karvinskianus.  This is November!


It is a classic and brilliantly reliable combination.   The Nerines take over easily from the richer red of Centranthus ruber which billows over walls and steps in the early summer.

centranthus erigeron

The real stars of the autumn show are plants which triumph when back lit by the early winter light.  The common teasel (Dispascus fullonum) is a perfect example of this – an architectural plant which will grow happily from seed – and which will self seed happily when established.  It catches the light brilliantly.


Here against the cherry-red seed capsules of the wonderful Euonymus europaeus, the teasels with their late afternoon haloes give the planting an intoxicating ethereal quality.

teasel and euonymys

And then there are the berries.  Worth taking note now and thinking of planting for hips or berries next year.

One of the greatest sources of wisdom on the best plant choices for autumn colour is John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands ( Massey is a self taught nurseryman who has been a plant collector, plant breeder and passionate gardener for forty years.  He gives specialist talks throughout the year – which include a visit to his private garden.  Absolutely a pilmrimage worth making

You know you are in the presence of the real thing when even his house is draped in a starry chain mail of yellow and orange foliage with the rainbow leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ AGM falling so knowingly onto the deep green holly hedge.starry house

liquidamber on holly

And there is real golddust to come:  when John tells you that the best yellow crab apple is Malus ‘Comtesse de Paris’ -an elegant tree with pearl-like golden fruit which hang down from slender red stalks

comtesse yellow

and that the better known Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ is no contest because its fruits turn brown so fast, it is the sort of rare and generous advice that can transform a garden.  His other favourite crab apples are the long lasting ‘Red Sentinel’ and ‘Crittenden’, the larger red fruiting ‘Evereste’ – and ‘Sugar Time’ with really tiny berries.  Perhaps his favourite of all is ‘Indian Magic’ (below) which has dark pink blossom and deep red fruit on long stems which become brighter orange as the winter progresses.

indian magic

One of the prettiest crab apples we see in his garden is Malus ‘Toringo’ – the Japanese crab – a small, semi-weeping tree with fragrant flowers that are pink in bud but fade to white, and gorgeous butter yellow leaves in autumn and tiny blood red fruit.

malusAs we are guided round the garden the conversation dances from Parthenocissus quinquefolia ‘Red Wall’ – a Virginia Creeper with particularly shiny green leaves in summer which turn a sensational flaming red, Euonymus alata compacta – the most reliable spindle for bright crimson leaf colour in Autumn and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star’ which he was originally given by the late Princess Sturdza of the Jardin du Vasterival ( ) in Normandy and for whose support he feels indebted.  ‘Great Star’ is the opposite of the worryingly, almost permanent, plumpness of one of the new super breed of hydrangeas such as  Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’  – a wonderfully graceful hydrangea with clusters of fresh, white star-shaped flowers from late summer to autumn.

greatstar                  Photo by Ashwood Nurseries

I am smitten by the violet-blue Aster ‘Little Carlow’ – which I have previously classified as just too brash and intense for the autumn garden – here looking airy and elegant amongst the bleached sketchy sheaves of grasses.

aster and grassMy favourite moment of all is when John stops to pick a tall, soft bottle-brush stem of Actaea matsumura ‘Elstead Variety’ from an elegant dancing group in full flower. We are all surprised and delighted by the intensity of its perfume.  actaea group cropThe Actaea are growing in brilliant combination alongside Euonymus bugneamus ‘Fireflame’ – which has a seductive limp quality to its milky green leaves and gorgeous perky apricot coloured seed heads –

salmon euonymus bungeaanus fireflame and the sculptural, ruby-polished foliage of Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’ – one of the finest small dogwoods which will have rich pink flower bracts in early summerMISS SATOMI

Important to remember, of course,  that where acres of intricate planting are sadly not a possibility –   just a single source of brightly coloured berries or rich autumn leaf colour can spectacularly transform a space.

Here at the entrance to Gravetye Manor, (,  former home of eminent Victorian ‘wild’ gardener, William Robinson and now my favourite country house hotel – I love the rough simplicity of this planting of Rosa moyesii on either side of the entrance steps.rosa moyesii gravetyerosa moyesii close upBack in Camberwell a neighbour’s Cotinus ‘Grace’, has been pruned into a small tree which takes your breath away with the richness of its colour on a grey November day.cotinus camberwellclose up cotinus camberwellShifting down a scale, a Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans in a pot on my terrace suddenly hurtles – caramelises almost – into winter.  Don’t forget to stop and look.hosta 1hosta 2



Dinner in Vini da Arturo where I ate pasta with a very delicious sauce made from raddichio da Treviso which had been cooked for five hours (a clove of garlic, half an onion , half a cup of olive oil, basil and parsley and a kilo of raddichio – add water every ten minutes, add half a cup of cream and parmesan before serving, since you ask). We got talking to New York artist, Judi Harvest , who invited us to meet her the next day at her Biennale show – Denatured – which takes the form of a honey bee garden on the island of Murano with beehives painted the colours of the fishermens’ houses on Buranohouse

image courtesy of ‘Denatured Honeybees+Murano’catalogue

and an exhibition of glass honey vessels and paintings at the elegant Scola die Batioro e Tiraoro – the eighteenth century building on the Grand Canal that was once the headquarters of the city’s goldworkers. scolaJudi worked with master glassblower Giorgio Giuman and his family at the Linea Arianna factory on Murano to create the beautiful abstracted glass vessels in gorgeous, glowing honey-inspired colours – from olive to deep amber to a clear lavender.  The vessels are a celebration of the sensuous, viscous quality  of both honey and molten glass and the use of found chicken wire as a framing device, with the blown glass bulging stickily through, perfectly echoes the rhythmical, hexagonal structure of honeycomb.


image courtesy of ‘Denatured Honeybees+Murano’ 

At the heart of the exhibition, suspended from the ceiling with the grandeur and glittering allure of the finest Venetian chandelier, is ‘Monumental Hive’ – made from porcelain, beeswax, goldleaf and resin and which took six months to construct.

the hive

                       image courtesy of ‘Denatured honeybees + Murano’ cataloge.

As we ride in the water taxi over to the factory, Judi explains how the exhibition was conceived.  She had become increasingly aware of both the global environmental crisis in the dwindling honey bee population and the saddening local decline of handmade glassmaking in Murano – a seven hundred year old tradition being increasingly and aggressively replaced by cheap imports from China and Eastern Europe.


In New York, to find out more about bees, Judi set up beehives on her studio roof terrace (keeping bees has, amazingly, only been legal in New York City since 2010) and became involved with Bees Without Borders ( a brilliant small charity whose aim is to reduce poverty by teaching beekeeping skills around the world.

In Venice, as she set about making her work in glass for her exhibition, she also took on the extraordinary – and pretty much single handed – task of making a real, durable bee friendly garden in the neglected grounds of the factory on Murano.

It was brilliant to visit the garden with her.  We spent time in the factory first – a wonderful place with the raw, ramshackle, treasure trove quality of the best studios and workshops –

journey 2festoon factory

opaque orangecoloured glass windowand then we entered the almost story book world of the walled garden with the brightly painted beehives as the focal point and fruit trees – pomegranate, peach, pear, cherry, apple and quince – encircled with cushions of lavender and sage.

non  and judy tramping

salvia and beehivesage circlecoloured glass and ceratostigmaThis tranquil space does not betray the dogged hard graft it took to make it.  Once the ground was cleared of rubbish and broken glass, everything – soil, turf, trees, plants, bee hives – had to be sourced somehow from the nearest possible point, brought in by freight boat and installed in the heavy rains and aqua alta of early spring 2013.

But the impact of the garden has been significant beyond the scope of the exhibition – it has had a powerful effect of the pride and self esteem of the Giuman family – finally a place to go when there is a chance to take a break from the intense heat and dusty concentration of glass blowing.  Giorgio’s daughter made the sweet threshold sign ” il giardino delle api” out of glass beads. Already the history of the garden is taking off by itself – and honey and fruit will be harvested for years to come.threshold 2threshold 1

We have lunch in a great workers’ cafe/restaurant,  Trattoria Bar Serenella dal Coco just next door to both the glass factory and the Serenella vaporetto stop.  Surely the cheapest spaghetti vongole you will find in Venice?


In the afternoon we take the vaporetto to the island of Torcello to see the cathedral of Santa Maria Dell’ Assunta.  The cathedral was built in the Seventh Century and is most famous for its Byzantine mosaics.  Torcello_-_Santa_Maria_Assunta_-_mosaics_of_the_choirimage by Remi Mathis via Wikipedia Commons

As well as the gorgeous elongated simplicity of the Madonna and Child on a gold ground which fills the entire curve of the apse, I am captivated first by the pale zig zag marble of the walls and then the marble floor.

floor torcellofloor torcello 2

A bold, inventive, delicate patchwork of ochre, russet, black, green, grey and white.  A celebration of whatever could be sourced over the years.

Later in the afternoon we enjoy an elegant, 20th Century interpretation of the same materials at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia.  The ground floor interior and garden of this sixteenth century palazzo now art gallery were brilliantly redesigned by Venetian Architect Carlo Stampa in the early sixties.


I am utterly charmed by the incredible quality and detail of his work here.  I love the spare geometric ironwork of the pair of gates which lead – tantalisingly – straight into the milky water of the canal,scarpa gatescarpa gates

and the graceful double row of precious and semi precious tiles set into a speckled concrete wall.

scarpascarpa tilingThe floating emerald discs of water lily leaves provide a glossy rhythm to the rill

scarpa rilland the band of stainless steel circles which line the wooden frame of the pond and the patterns of tiles and stepping stones cut into the lawn add further delightful layers of texture.

new pondWe are feeling the city’s charm badly.  Flashes of red everywhere.  Deep red Virginia creeper drapes itself knowingly over an austere castellated wall.

venetian sky

One of the city’s red painted benches waits confidently in a crumbling square.

red benchPartially lowered red canvas blinds provide a warming glow to the cool, shiny damp of the fishmarket.

flashes red and greenAn avenue of eighty year old Pittospurum, shaped into lush and portly trees, anchors the garden of a crumbling private palazzo


Even the museum posters plastered onto corrugated iron seem to be a symbol of the beautiful and endlessly creative city which is always the same but always slightly changing.

poster muranoposter tapies



Venetian pink

An October day in Venice. The morning glides softly by in a palette of diffused reds and milky greens.  The marble clad Church of Santa Maria dei Maracoli is the most exquisitely beautiful, calmly metered example of this, emerging matt and confident out of the petrol blue of the canal.

dei Miracolijourney a

The colours shift gently as we walk – somehow the richness of colour and texture is always perfectly balanced.

I am distracted by a detail – here the simple, overlapping curves of the metalwork on a bridge go into my sourcebook.

diversion 1

We climb up the tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. Look down one way and you have a dreamy view of the lagoon and its islands.


Look down another way and you have the ordered topiary of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini Onlus. It is a heady mix.

look down

We have arranged to meet Tudy Sammartini – the grande dame of Venetian gardens, both as a writer (“Secret Gardens in Venice” and “Verdant Venice: Gardens in the City of Water”) and a designer. We meet her at the San Basilio stop. The fragile white haired eighty something figure sitting by the canal melts away as she gets up revealing her imposing height and commanding voice. She lights up as we step onto the vaporetto over to Guidecca and is greeted superstar style for the rest of the afternoon – “Ciao Signora Tudy!”.


Tudy has been restoring the private garden behind the rich red industrial brickwork of the Fortuny factory with specialist architect, Ilaria Forti and will continue to work on the garden over the next few years.


She has been in the business for a long time and tells us how she worked with ‘The Countess’ in the sixties on the original development of the garden. Countess Gozzi has an amazing story.  She was an American interior designer and business woman – Elsie McNeill Lee – who fell in love with Fortuny furnishing fabrics in 1927 when she saw them hanging in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris.

fortuny sampleMariano Fortuny had patented a way of processing cotton to have the sheen and subtlety of antique silk in 1910.  He was an extraordinary man – as well as establishing his textile business he was an innovative and exciting set designer and painter, a lighting designer (he invented the dimmer switch) and in 1907 started producing the gorgeous finely pleated silk “Delphos” gowns which are synonymous with his name.

McNeill Lee travelled to Venice to meet  Fortuny – and ended up introducing his furnishing fabrics to the US and becoming so closely involved that when Fortuny died in 1949 she took over the business.  When she died in 1994 – having married an Italian Count and become Countess Gozzi –  she left the business to her confidant, Maged Riad whose family are still in charge and who have commissioned the garden restoration.

One of Countess Gozzi’s most ambitious gestures in the garden was to adapt the ‘Cavana’ – or boat garage into a private swimming pool – still one of only four swimming pools in Venice.  But for me the ambition is in the painstaking research – each plant in the restored garden features as a design in the Fortuny archives  –

Non and Tudy in showroom

archive fortuny

and the passionate tenacity that are bringing a neglected garden and piles of stone back from this:

still undone

non tudy pile treasures

Tudy shows me her fiercely guarded “pile of treasures”

stone face

To this:

gates + recycling

wisteria colum 1IMG_0648arch with sky

‘These sculptures are not that great’ she declares  ‘but they will have red-orange coats, (Virginia Creeper),  they will look good when they have coats.’

naked man

There is a romance and particular vocabulary to this sort of European formal garden which excites the Anglo Saxon designer – it is a language of rusting pergolas, berceaux  (vaulted trellises) laden with fruiting vines, crumbling marble columns whose capitals have been replaced slightly off centre “to keep a sense of movement and rhythm”, walls waiting to be clothed in arches of Laburnum and rangy pomegranate trees with their globe-like fruit splitting and spilling out their jewel red flesh against a blue sky.


Tudy has renovated the roses and the Wisteria herself ” I bring earth from the mountains …. I cut, cut, cut”.  But the first thing she insisted on was serious irrigation and she has used Dichondra to replace lawn as it only needs to be cut twice a year.  She will be planting bulbs – Iris, baroque tulips and narcissus – and shows me the meandering scented ‘snake’ she has created of lavander, box and myrtle.

A pragmatic scheme of white Camellia underplanted with blue and white Vinca is edged in the finely striped sepia and white stones used in the manufacturing process of Fortuny fabric.

fortuny stone

A celebration of soft red:

rust fabric paint and bricj

and rich green and soft red.


This wall – with spare arching black iron window frames dressed in grey toile de jouy style fabric – is clothed in bright yellow roses all summer.  I bet it is a brilliant combination.

IMG_0643grey fabric iron

As we leave the garden Tudy points to some dandelion leaves lurking at the base of a still  lonely pergola – I should not, of course, have expected this gardening powerhouse to be remotely apologetic:  ” I come to collect it” she says “and then I eat it”.