Monthly Archives: December 2013



On the cusp of December, on a day of thin winter sunshine, I visit Great Dixter ( for the last time this year.  The garden is still ablaze with the crimson berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis. In one celebratory combination the orange berries of Iris foetidus burst up brilliantly through its fan-shaped branches.

cotoneaster and irisRound the corner in the sunken Barn Garden, something completely magical and unexpected is waiting for us.

In the inky stillness of the hexagonal pond, floats an ethereal flame-red reflection of the cotoneaster on the steps above.  I have visited this garden at least once a month for a year but this dramatic reflection is new and takes my breath away.pool 4Looking up from its painterly centre, the whole garden seems to be playing out a great end- of-year finale – the naked branches of fan trained fig a dynamic firework at one corner, balanced by the solid, rounded green of the Osmanthus delavayi at the other.

pool 1The mood is festive.  In the Orchard there is an apple tree as fine as any Christmas tree – a majestic spread of dark branches with pale yellow apples for baubles:

apple and christmas treeThere is a wonderful ivy nearby which I have admired all year – Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’.  The leaves of ‘Buttercup’ are lime green to dark green in shade, but a brilliant milky yellow-gold in full sun.  At Dixter it is grown as a fine, ordered garland over a barn roof:

butter ivy

Another brilliant ivy to recommend at this time of year is Hedera helix ‘Maple Leaf’ – with dark green, glossy, five lobed leaves.  It is a fast grower and at the Prieuré d’Orsan (see my post on this beautiful garden in December 2013) clads an entire shady wall with a smart coat of rich green.  Both ivies can be sourced at .

ivyA few days later and the ancient oak trees at Ickworth Park in Suffolk make an elegant scene of dull hazy gold against green ( .

GOlden Ickworth park

At the park entrance there is a cottage with the sort of fairy tale planting which makes you promise to plant yourself a small yew tree in 2014.  You may have to wait a while until you get such a gorgeous fat green, bulging creature on your doorstep – but it would surely be worth the wait?

plant a yewOf course, if you can also find a champion Copper Beech to tower brilliantly over your little house – even better.

A short drive away, the King’s Forest is glowing with horizontal tiers of yellow-gold and bronze:

kings forestWithin the forest there is a wonderful 7 acre treasure trove of a garden called Fuller’s Mill ( Here the porcelain-white berries of Sorbus ursina hang with covetable elegance and clarity.

sorbus ursina

If you wanted to buy a similar Sorbus, choose a Sorbus cashmiriana – a very pretty small tree with soft pink flowers in late spring, and clusters of marble white fruits in autumn. The fruits  often well into winter.  Try either or – both wonderful nurseries.

Further on in the garden, the fruits of Euonymus elatus ‘Compactus’ are gorgeous tiny luminous bulbs in a delicious tangle of papery purple calyx and fine naked branches.
euonyous red cascadeAnd the week before Christmas I am in a tiny skiing village in Austria.  Here the houses are framed with dense ranks of deep green spruce and the lacy branches of red berried Mountain Ash.  It is wonderful to see native trees growing simply and plentifully where they are happiest on fertile well-drained soil on a mountain slope.

green shutter house plus rowan

The Rowan berries  are shiny and festive in the winter sunlight. We ate two kinds of rowan berries last night for supper with pigeon paté,: they were almost bitter but rather good against the richness of the meat.rowan berries As the light fades at the end of the day, the clusters make elegant drooping patterns against the mountain sky:silhouette rowanI love the beautiful scalloped tiles – made of spruce – which clad entire buildings.  scalloped tiles

Cladding buildings like this is the work of farmers during the snowbound winter. The tiles last for about twenty years and age to a wonderful smokey darkness.

little chalet

Even the plain rectangular tiles are softly lovely:lean to tilesI like the idea of this handsome door – slim logs painted with a pale grey stencil:door made of logs And I have a soft spot for this painted shield with a message of welcome above the door.welcome sign But my real discovery this week is the larch. I have never really enjoyed it before, despite my attempts to appreciate an often slightly shabby specimen of Europe’s only deciduous conifer on a tour of an arboretum.  But here I am enchanted by its regal stature and elegance:grand single larch  by the soft gold of its needles against the cherry red of the rowan fruits:larch and rowanand by the ethereal way it catches the sun and lights up the valley bottom – a soft ghostly gold against velvety green against the white mountain.IMG_1739



I have just returned, exhilarated, from a visit to a brilliant French garden, Le Prieuré d’Orsan  ( ), which happens to be made around an idyllic small hotel in the middle of the province of Berry, about 300km South of Paris. I was there to find out more about the garden for Gardens Illustrated ( The garden was looking ethereal and very beautiful in the low winter light.view through arch entrance

The soft mottled roof tiles, quilted with lichen and moss have the same gentle, enduring rust-and-pale-grey softness as the ever leaner skeletons of the hornbeam cloister which architect and owner, Patrice Taravella has created as the heart of the garden.

roof tiles

general soft viewgeneral soft view rigth

I first visited Le Prieuré D’Orsan a year ago, at the height of summer. Only a garden as well structured as this can look as as elegant in late November

new soft screen

as it did in August.


Here the approach to gardening is serious.  There is nothing that cannot be eaten or that does not serve a practical or symbolic purpose. But the energy, inventiveness and attention to detail that go into every aspect of its creation and its maintenance add a magical layer that is harder to define.

The immaculately clipped ivy around the storybook tower leading to the bedrooms is a perfect example of this.ivy tower

If you look down for a moment, even the cobbled path has been perfectly judged and beautifully laid.

cobblesThere are some deliciously mad ideas – like training the vigorous ornamental vine, Vitis coignetiae, into particularly finite rectangular wall panels above a series of almost impossibly narrow-shouldered cordon pears.  But the mad idea works of course because the vine will always be perfectly trained and never left for a moment to get slightly out of hand. Vitis coignetaie is usually left to festoon itself rampantly into a huge tree. I have seen its’ extravagant leaves with their luminous autumn colour grow in perfect scalloped rows – almost like roof tiles – over a garden shed, but this is the first time I have seen anyone try to harness this contradictory neatness in such a high profile position in the garden.

vitis coignet

Again the composition looks as strong in winter as it does in its more lush summer form:
vitis summerIt is extraordinary to visit the new rose garden n a freezing November day before any of the roses has had a chance to flower, and find that the confidence and exuberance of the structure alone has the power takes your breath away.

IMG_1412IMG_1423rosarie windowAs with the garden’s many other structures, the towers and panels of the rose garden are built by Patrice’s  Head Gardener of twenty years,  Gilles Guillot.  Coppiced chestnut,  often cut in half lengthways –  intended for straps around wine barrels  – is used as the principal material. The working relationship between the two men is now so close that they find it hard to separate out whose idea was whose – one will take up the idea of the other and a trellis panel, arch or exuberant tree seat will find itself simply emerging.

Railway sleepers are used particularly cleverly as a subtle, robust and often surprisingly elegant decking.  This is the central terrace of the ‘Rosarie’

rosarie parquet

This is an older path which has almost taken on the quality of stone as it has aged.old parquet

And here is one of the neat terraces of the ground floor bedrooms which have their own small garden:
new little wodden terraceI have seen sleepers used even more simply to make tactile and handsome decking at a vineyard in Bordeaux (below).  The sleeper paths and terraces are pressure washed in early spring and  work brilliantly as a gentle but elegant hard landscaping material.


Elsewhere at Orsan the delicate chestnut structures are used to screen and partially reveal, always offering tantalising glimpses of the next section of the garden. I love the way the cool grey main gates are only revealed if you take the trouble to go and find them.

front gate arch screen

front gate summergate

Lacy tunnels of hornbeam filter the sunlight to create an atmosphere of secrecy and surprise.

lovely leafy arch

Hornbeam pillars support exuberant pyramid-shaped ‘gloriettes’ – or pergolas – which keep the levels playful and unexpected


and mark out brilliant shapes against the sky.
gloriette skyWalking around the garden is a kind of game – even before you get to the espaliered fruit maze where Patrice put to use information culled from a job building a huge supermarket when he was a young architect (“I learned that on entering a supermarket, 95% of customers turn right – this is of course where I have put my dead ends …” ).

There are views through arches


and through windows cut into hedgesround windowand there are dead ends so handsome and lush

yew panel

or so fine and delicate …
IMG_1420that you are happy to just enjoy the moment, knowing that there is another delight just around the corner.

Here in the potager the medlar fruit glow on their spreading branches against the sky.

IMG_1430The training of the soft fruit and fruit trees at Orsan is extraordinary and humbling in its perfection – I will be writing about this and about the structure of the garden in greater detail in the  February 2014 editon of

Strictly following the mantra “we must always break the sap”,  every plant is immaculately trained to produce as much fruit as possible.  I am enchanted by the screen of arched panels glittering with golden gooseberry leaves catching the light.


The idea with this ‘cradle’ for raspberries is to train one year’s canes up one side of the structure only leaving the opposite side for the following year’s growth.

raspberry cradle

Rhubarb is grown long and straight nurtured by handsome willow baskets.

IMG_1435This is a garden where it takes a week to built structures around the two olive trees to fill with fleece and protect them in the -20˚ temperatures to come.IMG_1279But it is also a garden of dreamily timeless abundance in summer.two climbers

A place that lifts the spirits whenever you visit.
having a lovely time The benches make me happyfab bench Even the outside taps make me smile.tapLast year we celebrated my husband’s birthday sitting under the vines on the terrace.
festoon lights

Patrice made the most delicious birthday cake – a strawberry mille feuille with a vase of chocolate filled with flowers from the cutting garden.

nick's birthday cake

Pretty perfect. Go there.